Cloud Atlas (part one) Copyright © 2004 by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
Copyright © 2004 by David Mitchell

Thursday, 7th November—
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.
Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man,
his trow-zers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling
& sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed
him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon
to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle
so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ’tis not down on any map
I ever saw.
Had the doctor misplaced anything on that dismal shore? Could I render assistance? Dr. Goose
shook his head, knotted loose his ’kerchief & displayed its contents with clear pride. “Teeth,
sir, are the enameled grails of the quest in hand. In days gone by this Arcadian strand was a
cannibals’ banqueting hall, yes, where the strong engorged themselves on the weak. The teeth,
they spat out, as you or I would expel cherry stones. But these base molars, sir, shall be
transmuted to gold & how? An artisan of Piccadilly who fashions denture sets for the nobility
pays handsomely for human gnashers. Do you know the price a quarter pound will earn, sir?”
I confessed I did not.
“Nor shall I enlighten you, sir, for ’tis a professional secret!” He tapped his nose. “Mr. Ewing,
are you acquainted with Marchioness Grace of Mayfair? No? The better for you, for she is a
corpse in petticoats. Five years have passed since this harridan besmirched my name, yes, with
imputations that resulted in my being blackballed from Society” Dr. Goose looked out to sea.
“My peregrinations began in that dark hour.”
I expressed sympathy with the doctor’s plight.
“I thank you, sir, I thank you, but these ivories”—he shook his ’kerchief—“are my angels of
redemption. Permit me to elucidate. The Marchioness wears dental fixtures fashioned by the
aforementioned doctor. Next yuletide, just as that scented She-Donkey is addressing her
Ambassadors’ Ball, I, Henry Goose, yes, I shall arise & declare to one & all that our hostess
masticates with cannibals’ gnashers! Sir Hubert will challenge me, predictably, ‘Furnish your
evidence,’ that boor shall roar, ‘or grant me satisfaction!’ I shall declare, ‘Evidence, Sir Hubert?
Why, I gathered your mother’s teeth myselffrom the spittoon of the South Pacific! Here, sir,
here are some of their fellows!’ & fling these very teeth into her tortoiseshell soup tureen &
that, sir, that will grant me my satisfaction! The twittering wits will scald the icy Marchioness in
their news sheets & by next season she shall be fortunate to receive an invitation to a
Poorhouse Ball!”
In haste, I bade Henry Goose a good day. I fancy he is a Bedlamite.
Friday, 8th November—In the rude shipyard beneath my window, work progresses on the jibboom, under Mr. Sykes’s
directorship. Mr. Walker, Ocean Bay’s sole taverner, is also its principal timber merchant & he
brags of his years as a master shipbuilder in Liverpool. (I am now versed enough in
Antipodese etiquette to let such unlikely truths lie.) Mr. Sykes told me an entire week is needed
to render the Prophetess “Bristol fashion.” Seven days holed up in the Musket seems a grim
sentence, yet I recall the fangs of the banshee tempest & the mariners lost o’erboard & my
present misfortune feels less acute.
I met Dr. Goose on the stairs this morning & we took breakfast together. He has lodged at the
Musket since middle October after voyaging hither on a Brazilian merchantman, Namorados,
from Fee-jee, where he practiced his arts in a mission. Now the doctor awaits a long-overdue
Australian sealer, the Nellie, to convey him to Sydney. From the colony he will seek a position
aboard a passenger ship for his native London.
My judgment of Dr. Goose was unjust & premature. One must be cynical as Diogenes to
prosper in my profession, but cynicism can blind one to subtler virtues. The doctor has his
eccentricities & recounts them gladly for a dram of Portuguese pisco (never to excess), but I
vouchsafe he is the only other gentleman on this latitude east of Sydney & west of Valparaiso.
I may even compose for him a letter of introduction for the Partridges in Sydney, for Dr.
Goose & dear Fred are of the same cloth.
Poor weather precluding my morning outing, we yarned by the peat fire & the hours sped by
like minutes. I spoke at length of Tilda & Jackson & also my fears of “gold fever” in San
Francisco. Our conversation then voyaged from my hometown to my recent notarial duties in
New South Wales, thence to Gibbon, Malthus & Godwin via Leeches & Locomotives.
Attentive conversation is an emollient I lack sorely aboard the Prophetess & the doctor is a
veritable polymath. Moreover, he possesses a handsome army of scrimshandered chessmen
whom we shall keep busy until either the Prophetess’s departure or the Nellie’s arrival.
Saturday, 9th November—
Sunrise bright as a silver dollar. Our schooner still looks a woeful picture out in the Bay. An
Indian war canoe is being careened on the shore. Henry & I struck out for “Banqueter’s Beach”
in holy-day mood, blithely saluting the maid who labors for Mr. Walker. The sullen miss was
hanging laundry on a shrub & ignored us. She has a tinge of black blood & I fancy her mother
is not far removed from the jungle breed.
As we passed below the Indian hamlet, a “humming” aroused our curiosity & we resolved to
locate its source. The settlement is circumvallated by a stake fence, so decayed that one may
gain ingress at a dozen places. A hairless bitch raised her head, but she was toothless & dying
& did not bark. An outer ring of ponga huts (fashioned from branches, earthen walls & matted
ceilings) groveled in the lees of “grandee” dwellings, wooden structures with carved lintel
pieces & rudimentary porches. In the hub of this village, a public flogging was under way.
Henry & I were the only two Whites present, but three castes of spectating Indians were demarked. The chieftain occupied his throne, in a feathered cloak, while the tattooed gentry &
their womenfolk & children stood in attendance, numbering some thirty in total. The slaves,
duskier & sootier than their nut-brown masters & less than half their number, squatted in the
mud. Such inbred, bovine torpor! Pockmarked & pustular with haki-haki, these wretches
watched the punishment, making no response but that bizarre, beelike “hum.” Empathy or
condemnation, we knew not what the noise signified. The whip master was a Goliath whose
physique would daunt any frontier prizefighter. Lizards mighty & small were tattooed over
every inch of the savage’s musculature:—his pelt would fetch a fine price, though I should not be the man assigned to relieve him of it for all the pearls of O-hawaii! The piteous prisoner,
hoarfrosted with many harsh years, was bound naked to an A-frame. His body shuddered with
each excoriating lash, his back was a vellum of bloody runes, but his insensible face bespoke
the serenity of a martyr already in the care of the Lord.
I confess, I swooned under each fall of the lash. Then a peculiar thing occurred. The beaten
savage raised his slumped head, found my eye & shone me a look of uncanny, amicable
knowing! As if a theatrical performer saw a long-lost friend in the Royal Box and, undetected
by the audience, communicated his recognition. A tattooed “blackfella” approached us &
flicked his nephrite dagger to indicate that we were unwelcome. I inquired after the nature of
the prisoner’s crime. Henry put his arm around me. “Come, Adam, a wise man does not step
betwixt the beast & his meat.”
Sunday, 10th November—
Mr. Boerhaave sat amidst his cabal of trusted ruffians like Lord Anaconda & his garter snakes.
Their Sabbath “celebrations” downstairs had begun ere I had risen. I went in search of shaving
water & found the tavern swilling with Tars awaiting their turn with those poor Indian girls
whom Walker has ensnared in an impromptu bordello. (Rafael was not in the debauchers’
I do not break my Sabbath fast in a whorehouse. Henry’s sense of repulsion equaled to my
own, so we forfeited breakfast (the maid was doubtless being pressed into alternative service)
& set out for the chapel to worship with our fasts unbroken.
We had not gone two hundred yards when, to my consternation, I remembered this journal,
lying on the table in my room at the Musket, visible to any drunken sailor who might break in.
Fearful for its safety (& my own, were Mr. Boerhaave to get his hands on it), I retraced my
steps to conceal it more artfully Broad smirks greeted my return & I assumed I was “the devil
being spoken of,” but I learned the true reason when I opened my door:—to wit, Mr.
Boerhaave’s ursine buttocks astraddle his Blackamoor Goldilocks in my bed in flagrante
delicto! Did that devil Dutchman apologize? Far from it! He judged himself ‘the injured party &
roared, “Get ye hence, Mr. Quillcock! or by God’s B——d, I shall snap your tricksy Yankee
nib in two!”
I snatched my diary & clattered downstairs to a riotocracy of merriment & ridicule from the
White savages there gathered. I remonstrated to Walker that I was paying for a private room &
I expected it to remain private even during my absence, but that scoundrel merely offered a onethird discount on “a quarter-hour’s gallop on the comeliest filly in my stable!” Disgusted, I
retorted that I was a husband & a father! & that I should rather die than abase my dignity &
decency with any of his poxed whores! Walker swore to “decorate my eyes” if I called his own
dear daughters “whores” again. One toothless garter snake jeered that if possessing a wife & a
child was a single virtue, “Why Mr. Ewing, I be ten times more virtuous than you be!” & an
unseen hand emptied a tankard of sheog over my person. I withdrew ere the liquid was
swapped for a more obdurate missile.
The chapel bell was summoning the God-fearing of Ocean Bay & I hurried thitherwards,
where Henry waited, trying to forget the recent foulnesses witnessed at my lodgings. The
chapel creaked like an old tub & its congregation numbered little more than the digits of two
hands, but no traveler ever quenched his thirst at a desert oasis more thankfully than Henry & I
gave worship this morning. The Lutheran founder has lain at rest in his chapel’s cemetery these
ten winters past & no ordained successor has yet ventured to claim captaincy of the altar. Its
denomination, therefore, is a “rattle bag” of Christian creeds. Biblical passages were read by that half of the congregation who know their letters & we joined in a hymn or two nominated
by rota. The “steward” of this demotic flock, one Mr. D’Arnoq, stood beneath the modest
cruciform & besought Henry & me to participate in likewise manner. Mindful of my own
salvation from last week’s tempest, I nominated Luke ch. 8, “And they came to him, & awoke
him, saying, Master, master, we perish. Then he arose, & rebuked the wind & the raging of the
water: & they ceased, & there was a calm.”
Henry recited from Psalm the Eighth, in a voice as sonorous as any schooled dramatist: “Thou
madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou has put all things under his
feet: all sheep & oxen, yea & the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air & the fish of the sea &
whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.”
No organist played a Magnificat but the wind in the flue chimney, no choir sang a Nunc
Dimittis but the wuthering gulls, yet I fancy the Creator was not displeazed. We resembled
more the Early Christians of Rome than any later Church encrusted with arcana & gem-stones.
Communal prayer followed. Parishioners prayed ad lib for the eradication of potato blight,
mercy on a dead infant’s soul, blessing upon a new fishing boat, &c. Henry gave thanks for the
hospitality shown us visitors by the Christians of Chatham Isle. I echoed these sentiments &
sent a prayer for Tilda, Jackson & my father-in-law during my extended absence.
After the service, the doctor & I were approached most cordially by an elder “mainmast” of that
chapel, one Mr. Evans, who introduced Henry & me to his good wife (both circumvented the
handicap of deafness by answering only those questions they believed had been asked &
accepting only those answers they believed had been uttered—a stratagem embraced by many
an American advocate) & their twin sons, Keegan & Dyfedd. Mr. Evans made it known that
every week he had the custom of inviting Mr. DArnoq, our Preacher, to dine at their nearby
home, for the latter dwells in Port Hutt, a promontory some miles distant. Would we, too, join
their Sabbath Meal? Having already informed Henry of that Gomorrah back at the Musket &
hearing cries of “Mutiny!” from our stomachs, we accepted the Evanses’ kindness with
Our hosts’ farmstead, seated half a mile from Ocean Bay up a winding, blustery valley, proved
to be a frugal building, but proof against those hell-bent storms that break the bones of so many
hapless vessels upon nearby reefs. The parlor was inhabited by a monstrous hog’s head
(afflicted with droop-jaw & lazy-eye), killed by the twins on their sixteenth birthday, & a
somnambulant Grandfather clock (at odds with my own pocket watch by a margin of hours.
Indeed, one valued import from New Zealand is the accurate time). An Indian farmhand peered
through the windowpane at his master’s visitors. No more tatterdemalion a renegado I ever
beheld, but Mr. Evans swore the quadroon, Barnabas, was “the fleetest sheepdog who ever ran
upon two legs.” Keegan & Dyfedd are honest woolly fellows, versed principally in the ways of
sheep (the family own two hundred head), for neither has gone to “Town” (the islanders thus
appellate New Zealand) nor undergone any schooling save Scripture lessons from their father,
by dint of which they have learnt to read & write tolerably well.
Mrs. Evans said grace & I enjoyed my most pleasant repast (untainted by salt, maggots &
oaths) since my farewell dinner with Consul Bax & the Partridges at the Beaumont. Mr.
D’Arnoq told us tales of ships he has supplied during his ten-year on Chatham Isle, while
Henry amused us with stories of patients, both illustrious & humble, he has benefacted in
London & Polynesia. For my part I described the many hardships overcome by this American
notary in order to locate the Australian beneficiary of a will executed in California. We washed
down our mutton stew & apple dumpling with small ale brewed by Mr. Evans for trading with
whalers. Kee-gan & Dyfedd left to attend to their livestock & Mrs. Evans retired to her kitchen
duties. Henry asked if missionaries were now active on the Chathams, at which Mr. Evans &
Mr. DArnoq exchanged looks & the former informed us, “Nay, the Maori don’t take kindly to us Pakeha spoiling their Moriori with too much civilization.”
I questioned if such an ill as “too much civilization” existed or no? Mr. DArnoq told me, “If
there is no God west of the Horn, why there’s none of your constitution’s All men created
equal, neither, Mr. Ewing.” The nomenclatures Maori & Pakeha I knew from the Prophetess’s
sojourn at the Bay of Islands, but I begged to know who or what Moriori might signify. My
query unlocked a Pandora’s Box of history, detailing the decline & fall of the Aboriginals of
Chatham. We lit our pipes. Mr. DArnoq’s narrative was unbroken three hours later when he
had to depart for Port Hutt ere nightfall obscured the dykey way His spoken history, for my
money, holds company with the pen of a Defoe or Melville & I shall record it in these pages,
after, Morpheus willing, a sound sleep.
Monday, 11th NovemberDawn sticky & sunless. The Bay has a slimy appearance, but the weather is mild enough to
allow repairs to continue on the Prophetess, I thank Neptune. A new mizzen-top is being
hoisted into position as I write.
A short time past, while Henry & I breakfasted, Mr. Evans arrived hugger-mugger,
importuning my doctor friend to attend to a reclusive neighbor, one Widow Bryden, who was
thrown from her horse on a stony bog. Mrs. Evans was in attendance and fears that the widow
lies in peril of her life. Henry fetched his doctor’s case & left without delay (I offered to come,
but Mr. Evans begged my forbearance, as the patient had extracted a promise that none but a
doctor should see her incapacitated.) Walker, overhearing these transactions, told me no
member of the male sex had crossed the widow’s threshold these twenty years & decided that
“the frigid old sow must be on her last trotters if she’s letting Dr. Quack frisk her.”
The origins of the Moriori of Rekohu (the native moniker for the Chathams) remain a mystery
to this day Mr. Evans evinces the belief they are descended from Jews expelled from Spain,
citing their hooked noses & sneering lips. Mr. DArnoq’s preferred theorum, that the Moriori
were once Maori whose canoes were wrecked upon these remotest of isles, is founded on
similarities of tongue & mythology & thereby possesses a higher carat of logic. What is certain
is that, after centuries or millennia of living in isolation, the Moriori lived as primitive a life as
their woebegone cousins of Van Diemen’s Land. Arts of boatbuilding (beyond crude woven
rafts used to cross the channels betwixt islands) & navigation fell into disuse. That the
terraqueous globe held other lands, trod by other feet, the Moriori dreamt not. Indeed, their
language lacks a word for “race” & “Moriori” means, simply, “People.” Husbandry was not
practiced, for no mammals walked these isles until passing whalers willfully marooned pigs
here to propagate a parlor. In their virgin state, the Moriori were foragers, picking up paua
shellfish, diving for crayfish, plundering bird eggs, spearing seals, gathering kelp & digging
for grubs & roots.
Thus far, the Moriori were but a local variant of most flaxen-skirted, feather-cloaked heathens
of those dwindling “blind spots” of the ocean still unschooled by the White Man. Old
Rekohu’s claim to singularity, however, lay in its unique pacific creed. Since time immemorial,
the Moriori’s priestly caste dictated that whosoever spilt a man’s blood killed his own mana—
his honor, his worth, his standing & his soul. No Moriori would shelter, feed, converse with,
or even see the persona non grata. If the ostracized murderer survived his first winter, the
desperation of solitude usually drove him to a blowhole on Cape Young, where he took his
life.Consider this, Mr. D’Arnoq urged us. Two thousand savages (Mr. Evans’s best guess)
enshrine “Thou Shalt Not Kill” in word & in deed & frame an oral “Magna Carta” to create a
harmony unknown elsewhere for the sixty centuries since Adam tasted the fruit of the Tree of
Knowledge. War was as alien a concept to the Moriori as the telescope is to the Pygmy. Peace,
not a hiatus betwixt wars but millennia of imperishable peace, rules these far-flung islands.
Who can deny Old Rekohu lay closer to More’s Utopia than our States of Progress governed
by war-hungry princelings in Versailles & Vienna, Washington & Westminster? “Here,”
declaimed Mr. D’Arnoq, “and here only, were those elusive phantasms, the noble savages,
framed in flesh & blood!” (Henry, as we later made our way back to the Musket, confessed, “I
could never describe a race of savages too backwards to throw a spear straight as ‘noble.’ ”)
Glass & peace alike betray proof of fragility under repeated blows. The first blow to the
Moriori was the Union Jack, planted in Skirmish Bay’s sod in the name of King George by
Lieutenant Broughton of HMS Chatham just fifty years ago. Three years later, Broughton’s
discovery was in Sydney & London chart agents & a scattering of free settlers (whose number
included Mr. Evans’s father), wrecked mariners & “convicts at odds with the New South
Wales Colonial Office over the terms of their incarceration” were cultivating pumpkins, onions,
maize & carrots. These they sold to needy sealers, the second blow to the Moriori’s
independence, who disappointed the Natives’ hopes of prosperity by turning the surf pink with
seals’ blood. (Mr. D’Arnoq illustrated the profits by this arithmetic—a single pelt fetched 15
shillings in Canton & those pioneer sealers gathered over two thousand pelts per boat!) Within
a few years the seals were found only on the outer rocks & the “sealers” too turned to farming
potatoes, sheep & pig rearing on such a scale that the Chathams are now dubbed “The Garden
of the Pacific.” These parvenu farmers clear the land by bushfires that smolder beneath the peat
for many seasons, surfacing in dry spells to sow renewed calamity
The third blow to the Moriori was the whalers, now calling at Ocean Bay, Waitangi, Owenga
& Te Whakaru in sizable numbers for careening, refitting & refreshing. Whalers’ cats & rats
bred like the Plagues of Egypt & ate the burrow-nesting birds whose eggs the Moriori so
valued for sustenance. Fourth, those motley maladies which cull the darker races whene’er
White civilization draws near, sapped the Aboriginal census still further.
All these misfortunes the Moriori might have endured, however, were it not for reports arriving
in New Zealand depicting the Chathams as a veritable Canaan of eel-stuffed lagoons, shellfishcarpeted coves & inhabitants who understand neither combat nor weapons. To the ears of the
Ngati Tama & Ngati Mutunga, two clans of the Taranaki Te Ati Awa Maori (Maori genealogy
is, Mr. D’Arnoq assures us, every twig as intricate as those genealogical trees so revered by
the European gentry; indeed, any boy of that unlettered race can recall his grandfather’s
grandfather’s name & “rank” in a trice), these rumors promised compensation for the tracts of
their ancestral estates lost during the recent “Musket Wars.” Spies were sent to test the
Moriori’s mettle by violating tapu & despoiling holy sites. These provocations the Moriori
faced as our Lord importuned, by “turning the other cheek,” & the transgressors returned to
New Zealand confirming the Moriori’s apparent pusillanimity The tattooed Maori
conquistadores found their single-barked armada in Captain Harewood of the brig Rodney who
in the dying months of 1835, agreed to transport nine hundred Maori & seven war canoes in
two voyages, in guerno for seed potatoes, firearms, pigs, a great supply of scraped flax & a
cannon. (Mr. D’Arnoq encountered Harewood five years ago, penurious in a Bay of Islands
tavern. He at first denied being the Rodney’s Harewood, then swore he had been coerced into
conveying the Blacks, but was unclear how this coercion had been worked upon him.)
The Rodney embarked from Port Nicholas in November, but its heathen cargo of five hundred
men, women & children, packed tight in the hold for the six-day voyage, bilged in ordure &
seasickness & lacking the barest sufficiency of water, anchored at Whangatete Inlet in such an enfeebled state that, had they but the will, even the Moriori might have slain their Martial
brethren. The Goodly Samaritans chose instead to share the diminished abundance of Rekohu
in preference to destroying their mana by bloodletting & nursed the sick & dying Maori back
to health. “Maori had come to Rekohu before,” Mr. D’Arnoq explained, “yet gone away again,
so the Moriori assumed the colonists would likewise leave them in peace.”
The Moriori’s generosity was rewarded when Cpt. Harewood returned from New Zealand
with another four hundred Maori. Now the strangers proceeded to lay claim to Chatham by
takahi, a Maori ritual transliterated as “Walking the Land to Possess the Land.” Old Rekohu
was thus partitioned & the Moriori informed they were now Maori vassals. In early December,
when some dozen Aboriginals protested, they were casually slain with tomahawks. The Maori
proved themselves apt pupils of the English in “the dark arts of colonization.”
Chatham Isle encloses a vast eastern salt marsh lagoon, Te Whanga, very nearly an inland sea
but fecundated by the ocean at high tide through the lagoon’s “lips” at Te Awapatiki. Fourteen
years ago, the Moriori men held on that sacred ground a parliament. Three days it lasted, its
object to settle this question: Would the spillage of Maori blood also destroy one’s mana?
Younger men argued the creed of Peace did not encompass foreign cannibals of whom their
ancestors knew nothing. The Moriori must kill or be killed. Elders urged appeasement, for as
long as the Moriori preserved their mana with their land, their gods & ancestors would deliver
the race from harm. “Embrace your enemy,” the elders urged, “to prevent him striking
you.” (“Embrace your enemy” Henry quipped, “to feel his dagger tickle your kidneys.”)
The elders won the day but it mattered little. “When lacking numerical superiority” Mr.
D’Arnoq told us, “the Maori seize an advantage by striking first & hardest, as many hapless
British & French can testify from their graves.” The Ngati Tama & Ngati Mutunga had held
councils of their own. The Moriori menfolk returned from their parliament to ambushes & a
night of infamy beyond nightmare, of butchery, of villages torched, of rapine, of men &
women, impaled in rows on beaches, of children hiding in holes, scented & dismembered by
hunting dogs. Some chiefs kept an eye to the morrow & slew only enough to instill terrified
obedience in the remainder. Other chiefs were not so restrained. On Waitangi Beach fifty
Moriori were beheaded, filleted, wrapped in flax leaves, then baked in a giant earth oven with
yams & sweet potatoes. Not half those Moriori who had seen Old Rekohu’s last sunset were
alive to see the Maori sun rise. (“Less than an hundred pure-blooded Moriori now remain,”
mourned Mr. D’Arnoq. “On paper the British Crown freed these from the yoke of slavery
years ago, but the Maori do not care for paper. We are one week’s sail from the Governor’s
House & Her Majesty maintains no garrison on Chatham.”)
I asked, why had not the Whites stayed the hands of the Maori during the massacre?
Mr. Evans was no longer sleeping & not half so deaf as I had fancied. “Have you ever seen
Maori warriors in a blood frenzy, Mr. Ewing?”
I said I had not.
“But you have seen sharks in a blood frenzy, have you not?”
I replied that I had.
“Near enough. Imagine a bleeding calf is thrashing in shark-infested shallows. What to do—
stay out of the water or try to stay the jaws of the sharks? Such was our choice. Oh, we helped
the few that came to our door—our shepherd Barnabas was one—but if we stepped out in that
night we’d not be seen again. Remember, we Whites numbered below fifty in Chatham at that
time. Nine hundred Maoris, altogether. Maoris bide by Pakeha, Mr. Ewing, but they despise
us. Never forget it.”
What moral to draw? Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your
neighbors share your conscience.Night—
The name of Mr. D’Arnoq is not well-loved in the Musket. “A White Black, a mixed-blood
mongrel of a man,” Walker told me. “Nobody knows what he is.” Suggs, a one-armed
shepherd who lives under the bar, swore our acquaintance is a Bonapartist general hiding here
under assumed colors. Another swore he was a Polack.
Nor is the word Moriori much loved. A drunken Maori mulatto told me that the entire history
of the Aboriginals had been dreamt up by the “mad old Lutheran” & Mr. DArnoq preaches his
Moriori gospel only to legitimize his own swindling land claims against the Maori, the true
owners of Chatham, who have been coming to & fro in their canoes since time immemorial!
James Coffee, a hog farmer, said the Maori had performed the White Man a service by
exterminating another race of brutes to make space for us, adding that Russians train Kossacks
to “soften Siberian hides” in a similar way
I protested, to civilize the Black races by conversion should be our mission, not their
extirpation, for God’s hand had crafted them, too. All hands in the tavern fired broadsides at
me for my “sentimental Yankee claptrap!” “The best of ’em is not too good to die like a pig!”
one shouted. “The only gospel the Blacks savvy is the gospel of the d——d whip!” Still
another: “We Britishers abolished slavery in our empire—no American can say as much!”
Henry’s stance was ambivalent, to say the least. “After years of working with missionaries, I
am tempted to conclude that their endeavors merely prolong a dying race’s agonies for ten or
twenty years. The merciful plowman shoots a trusty horse grown too old for service. As
philanthropists, might it not be our duty to likewise ameliorate the savages’ sufferings by
hastening their extinction? Think on your Red Indians, Adam, think on the treaties you
Americans abrogate & renege on, time & time & time again. More humane, surely & more
honest, just to knock the savages on the head & get it over with?”
As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums
of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.
Tuesday, 12th November—
Our noble Cpt. Molyneux today graced the Musket to haggle over the price of five barrels of
salt-horse with my landlord (the matter was settled by a rowdy game of trentuno won by the
captain). Much to my surprise, ere he returned to inspect the progress in the shipyard, Cpt.
Molyneux requested some confidential words with Henry in my companion’s room. The
consultation continues as I write. My friend has been warned of the captain’s despotism, but
still, I do not like it.
Cpt. Molyneux, it transpires, suffers from a medical complaint which, if untreated, may impair
those divers skills demanded of his station. The captain has therefore proposed to Henry that
my friend voyage with us to Honolulu (victualing & private berth gratis), assuming the
responsibilities both of Ship’s Doctor & personal physician to Cpt. Molyneux until our arrival.
My friend explained he had intended to return to London, but Cpt. Molyneux was most
insistent. Henry promised to think the matter over & come to a decision by Friday morning, the day now set for the Prophetess’s departure.
Henry did not name the captain’s illness, nor did I ask, though one needs not be an
Aesculapian to glean Cpt. Molyneux is a slave to gout. My friend’s discretion does him much
credit. Whatever eccentricities Henry Goose may exhibit as a collector of curios, I believe Dr.
Goose is an exemplary healer & it is my zealous, if self-serving, hope that Henry returns a
favorable answer to the captain’s proposal.
Wednesday, 13th November—
I come to my journal as a Catholick to a confessor. My bruises insist these extraordinary past
five hours were not a sickbed vision conjured by my Ailment, but real events. I shall describe
what befell me this day, steering as close to the facts as is possible.
This morning, Henry paid Widow Bryden’s hut another call to adjust her splint & reapply
poultice. Rather than submit to idleness, I resolved to scale a high hill to the north of Ocean
Bay, known as Conical Tor, whose lofty elevation promises the best aspect of Chatham Isle’s
“backcountry” (Henry, a man of maturer years, has too much sense to tramp unsurveyed
islands peopled by cannibals.) The tired creek who waters Ocean Bay guided me upstream
through marshy pastures, stump-pocked slopes, into virgin forest so rotted, knotted & tangled,
I was obliged to clamber aloft like an orang-utan! A volley of hailstones began abruptly, filled
the woods with a frenzied percussion & ended on the sudden. I spied a “Robin Black-Breast”
whose plumage was tarry as night & whose tameness bordered on contempt. An unseen tui
took to song, but my inflamed fancy awarded it powers of human speech:—“Eye for an eye!” it
called ahead, flitting through its labyrinth of buds, twigs & thorns. “Eye for an eye!” After a
grueling climb, I conquered the summit grievously torn & scratched at I know not What
o’Clock, for I neglected to wind my pocket watch last night. The opaque mists that haunt these
isles (the Aboriginal name Rekohu, Mr. D’Arnoq informs us, signifies “Sun of Mists”) had
descended as I ascended, so my cherished panorama was naught but treetops disappearing into
drizzle. A miserly reward for my exertions, indeed.
The “summit” of Conical Tor was a crater, a stone’s throw in diameter, encircling a crag-walled
depression whose floor lay unseen far beneath the funereal foliage of a gross or more kopi
trees. I should not have cared to investigate its depths without the aid of ropes & a pickax. I
was circumambulating the crater’s lip, seeking a clearer trail back to Ocean Bay, when a
startling hoo-roosh! sent me diving to the ground:—the mind abhors a vacancy & is wont to
people it with phantoms, thus I glimpsed first a tusked hog charging, then a Maori warrior,
spear held aloft, his face inscribed with the ancestral hatred of his race.
’Twas but a mollyhawk, wings “flupping” the air like a windjammer. I watched her disappear
back into the diaphanous fog. I was a full yard shy of the crater’s lip, but to my horror, the turf
beneath me disintegrated like suet crust—I stood on not solid ground but an overhang! I
plunged to my midriff, grasping some grasses in desperation, but these broke in my fingers &
down I plummeted, a mannikin tossed into a well! I recall spinning in space, yelling & twigs
clawing my eyes, cartwheeling & my jacket snagging, tearing loose; loose earth; the
anticipation of pain; an urgent, formless prayer for help; a bush slowing but not halting my
descent & a hopeless attempt to regain balance—sliding—lastly terra firma careering upwards
to meet me. The impact knocked my senses out of me.
Amidst nebulous quilts & summery pillows I lay, in a bedroom in San Francisco similar to my
own. A dwarfish servant said, “You’re a very silly boy, Adam.” Tilda & Jackson entered, but
when I voiced my jubilation, not English but the guttural barkings of an Indian race burst from
my mouth! My wife & son were shamed by me & mounted a carriage. I gave chase, striving to rectify this misunderstanding, but the carriage dwindled into the fleeing distance until I awoke
in bosky twilight & a silence, booming & eternal. My bruises, cuts, muscles & extremities
groaned like a courtroom of malcontent litigants.
A mattress of moss & mulch, lain down in that murky hollow since the second day of Creation,
had preserved my life. Angels preserved my limbs, for if even a single arm or leg had been
broken I should be lying there still, unable to extricate myself, awaiting death from the elements
or the claws of beasts. Upon regaining my feet & seeing how far I had slid & fallen (the height
of a foremast) with no worse damage to my person, I thanked our Lord for my deliverance, for
indeed, “Thou calledst in trouble, & I delivered thee; I answered thee in the secret place of
My eyes adjusted to the gloom & revealed a sight at once indelible, fearsome & sublime. First
one, then ten, then hundreds of faces emerged from the perpetual dim, adzed by idolaters into
bark, as if Sylvan spirits were frozen immobile by a cruel enchanter. No adjectives may
properly delineate that basilisk tribe! Only the inanimate may be so alive. I traced my thumbs
along their awful visages. I do not doubt, I was the first White in that mausoleum since its
prehistoric inception. The youngest dendroglyph is, I suppose, ten years old, but the elders,
grown distended as the trees matured, were incised by heathens whose very ghosts are long
defunct. Such antiquity surely bespoke the hand of Mr. D’Arnoq’s Moriori.
Time passed in that bewitched place & I sought to effect my escape, encouraged by the
knowledge that the artists of the “tree sculptures” must earn regular egress from that same pit.
One wall looked less sheer than the others & fibrous creepers offered a “rigging” of sorts. I
was readying myself for the climb when a puzzling “hum” came to my attention. “Who goes
there?” I called (a rash act for an unarmed White trespasser in a heathen shrine). “Shew
yourself!” The silence swallowed my words & their echo & mocked me. My Ailment stirred in
my spleen. The “hum” I traced to a mass of flies orbiting a protuberance impaled on a brokenoff branch. I poked the lump with a pine stick & nearly retched, for ’twas a piece of stinking
offal. I turned to flee, but duty obliged me to dispel a black suspicion that a human heart hung
on that tree. I concealed my nose & mouth in my ’kerchief & with my stick, touched a severed
ventricle. The organ pulsed as if alive! & my scalding Ailment shot up my spine! As in a dream
(but it was not!) a pellucid salamander emerged from its carrion dwelling & darted along the
stick to my hand! I flung the stick away & saw not where that salamander disappeared. My
blood was enriched by fright & I hastened to effect my escape. Easier written than done, for
had I slipped & plunged anew from those vertiginous walls my luck may not have softened my
fall a second time, but foot holes had been hewn into the rock & by God’s grace I gained the
crater’s lip with no mishap. Back in the dismal cloud, I craved the presence of men of my own
hue, yes, even the rude sailors in the Musket, & began my descent on the nonce in what I hoped
was a southerly direction. My initial resolve to report all I had seen (surely, Mr. Walker, the de
facto if not de jure Consul, should be informed of the robbery of a human heart?) weakened as
I approached Ocean Bay. I am still undecided what to report & to whom. The heart was most
likely a hog’s, or sheep’s, surely The prospect of Walker & his ilk felling the trees & selling the
dendroglyphs to collectors offends my conscience. A sentimentalist I may be, but I do not wish
to be the agent of the Moriori’s final violation. *
The Southern Cross was bright in the sky ere Henry returned to the Musket, having been
detained by more islanders seeking to consult “Widow Bryden’s Healer Man” on their rheums, yaws & dropsy. “If potatoes were dollars,” rued my friend, “I should be richer than
Nebuchadnezzar!” He was concerned by my (much edited) misadventure on Conical Tor &
insisted on examining my injuries. Earlier I had prevailed upon the Indian maid to fill my bath
& emerged much recruited. Henry donated a pot of balm for my inflammations & refused to
take a cent for it. Fearing this may be my last chance to consult with a gifted physician (Henry
intends to refuse Cpt. Molyneux’s proposal), I unburdened my fears vis-à-vis my Ailment. He
listened soberly & asked about the frequency & duration of my spells. Henry regretted he
lacked the time & apparatus for a compleat diagnosis, but recommended, upon my return to San
Francisco, I find a specialist in tropical parasites as a matter of urgency. (I could not bring
myself to tell him there are none.) I slumber not.
Thursday, 14th November—
We make sail with the morning tide. I am once more aboard the Prophetess, but I cannot
pretend it is good to be back. My coffin now stores three great coils of hawser, which I must
scale to attain my bunk, for not one inch of floor is visible. Mr. D’Arnoq sold half a dozen
barrels of sundry provisions to the quartermaster & a bolt of sailcloth (much to Walker’s
disgust). He came aboard to supervise their delivery & collect payment himself & bid me
Godspeed. In my coffin we were squeezed like two men in a pothole, so we repaired to the
deck for it is a pleasant evening. After discussing divers matters we shook hands & he climbed
down to his waiting ketch, ably crewed by two young manservants of mongrel race.
Mr. Roderick has little sympathy with my petition to have the offending hawser removed
elsewhere, for he is obliged to quit his private cabin (for the reason stated below) & move to
the fo’c’sle with the common sailors, whose number has swollen with five Castilians
“poached” from the Spaniard at anchor in the Bay. Their captain was the portrait of a Fury, yet
short of declaring war on the Prophetess—a battle sure to bloody his nose, for he pilots the
leakiest tub—he can do little but thank his stars Cpt. Molyneux required no more deserters. The
very words “California Bound” are dusted in gold & beckon all men thitherwards like moths to
a lantern. These five replace the two deserters at the Bay of Islands & the hands lost in the
tempest, but we are still several men short of a full crew. Finbar tells me the men grumble over
the new arrangements, for with Mr. Roderick lodged in their fo’c’sle, they cannot yarn freely
over a bottle.
Fate has dealt me a fine compensation. After paying Walker’s usurous bill (nor did I tip that
scoundrel a cent), I was packing my jackwood trunk when Henry entered, greeting me thus:
—“Good morning, Shipmate!” God has answered my prayers! Henry has accepted the post of
Ship’s Doctor & I am no longer friendless in this floating farmyard. So ornery a mule is the
common sailor that, instead of gratitude that a doctor shall be on hand to splint their breakages
& treat their infections, one o’erhears them moaning, “What are we, to carry a Ship’s Doctor
who can’t walk a bowsprit? A Royal Barge?”
I must confess to a touch of pique that Cpt. Molyneux afforded a fare-paying gentleman such
as myself only my lamentable berth, when a more commodious cabin lay at his disposal all
along. Of far greater consequence, however, is Henry’s promise to turn his formidable talents
to a diagnosis of my Ailment as soon as we are at sea. My relief is indescribable.
Friday, 15th November—We got under weigh at daybreak, notwithstanding Friday is a Jonah amongst sailors. (Cpt.
Molyneux growls, “Superstitions, Saints’ Days & other blasted fripperies are fine sport for
Popish fishwives but I am in the business of turning a profit!”) Henry & I did not venture on
deck, for all hands were busy with rigging & a southerly blows very fresh with a heavy sea;
the ship was troublesome last night & is not less so today. We passed half the day arranging
Henry’s apothecary Besides the appurtenances of the modern physician, my friend owns
several learned volumes, in English, Latin & German. A case holds “spectra” of powders in
stoppered bottles labeled in Greek. These he compounds to make various pills & unguents. We
peered through the steerage hatch towards noon & the Chathams were ink stains on the leaden
horizon, but the rolling & pitching are unsafe for those whose sea legs have vacationed the
week ashore.
Torgny the Swede knocked on my coffin door. Surprized & intrigued by his furtive manner, I
bade him enter. He seated himself upon a “pyramid” of hawser & whispered that he bore a
proposal from a ring of shipmates. “Tell us where the best veins are, the secret ones you locals
are keeping for yourselves. Me ’n’ my fellows’ll do the pack work. You’ll just sit pretty &
we’ll cut you in a tenth share.”
I required a moment to understand that Torgny was referring to the Californian mining fields.
So, a widespread desertion is in the offing once the Prophetess reaches her destination & I
own, my sympathies are with the seamen! Saying so, I swore to Torgny that I possessed no
knowledge of the gold deposits, for I have been absent this twelvemonth, but I would gratis
compose a map illustrating the rumored “Eldorados” & gladly. Torgny was agreeable. Tearing
a leaf from this journal, I was sketching a schema of Sausa-lito, Benecia, Stanislaus,
Sacramento &c. when a malevolent voice spoke out. “Quite the oracle, no, Mr. Quillcock?”
We had not heard Boerhaave descend the companionway & nudge open my door! Torgny cried
in dismay, declaring his guilt in a trice. “What, pray,” continued the first mate, “what business
have you with our passenger, Pustule of Stockholm?” Torgny was struck dumb, but I would
not be cowed & told the bully I was describing the “sights” of my town, the better for Torgny
to enjoy his shore leave.
Boerhaave raised his eyebrows. “You allot shore leave now, do you? New news to my old
ears. That paper, Mr. Ewing, if you please.” I did not please. My gift to the seaman was not the
Dutchman’s to commandeer. “Oh, begging your pardon, Mr. Ewing. Torgny, take receipt of
your gift.” I had no choice but to hand it to the prostrate Swede. Mr. Boerhaave uttered,
“Torgny, give me your gift instanter or, by the hinges of hell, you shall regret the day you
crawled from your mother’s [my quill curls at recording his profanity].” The mortified Swede
“Most educational,” remarked Boerhaave, eyeing my cartography “The captain will be
delighted to learn of the pains you are taking to better our scabby Jacks, Mr. Ewing. Torgny
you’re on masthead watch for twenty-four hours. Forty-eight if you’re seen taking
refreshment. Drink you own p—— if you get a thirst.”
Torgny fled, but the first mate was not finished with me. “Sharks ply these waters, Mr.
Quillcock Trail ships for tasty jetsam, they do. Once I saw one eat a passenger. He, like you,
was neglectful of his safety & fell o’erboard. We heard his screams. Great Whites toy with their
dinner, gnawing ’em slow, a leg here, a nibble there & that miserable b—— was alive longer
than you’d credit. Think on it.” He shut my coffin door. Boerhaave, like all bullies & tyrants, takes pride in that very hatefulness which makes him notorious.
Saturday, 16th November—
My Fates have inflicted upon me the greatest unpleasance of my voyage to date! A shade of
Old Rekohu has thrust me, whose only desiderata are quietude & discretion, into a pillory of
suspicion & gossip! Yet I am guilty on no counts save Christian trustingness & relentless ill
fortune! One month to the day has passed since we put out from New South Wales, when I
wrote this sunny sentence, “I anticipate an uneventful & tedious voyage.” How that entry
mocks me! I shall never forget the last eighteen hours, but since I cannot sleep nor think (&
Henry is now abed) my only escape from insomnia now is to curse my Luck on these
sympathetic pages.
Last night I retired to my coffin “dog tired.” After my prayers I blew out my lantern & lulled by
the ship’s myriad voices I sank into the shallows of sleep when a husky voice inside my coffin!
awakened me wide-eyed & affright! “Mr. Ewing,” beseeched this urgent whisper. “Do not fear
—Mr. Ewing—no harm, no shout, please, sir.”
I jumped involuntarily & knocked my head against the bulkhead. By the twin glimmers of
amber-light through my ill-fitted door & starlight through my porthole, I saw a serpentine
length of hawser uncoil itself & a black form heave itself free like the dead at the Last Trump!
A powerful hand seemed to sail through the blackness & sealed my lips ere I could cry out!
My assailant hissed, “Missa Ewing, no harm, you safe, I friend of Mr. D’Arnoq—you know
he Christian—please, quiet!”
Reason, at last, rallied against my fear. A man, not a spirit, was hiding in my room. If he
wished to slit my throat for my hat, shoes & legal box, I would already be dead. If my gaoler
was a stowaway, why he, not I, was in peril for his life. From his uncut language, his faint
silhouette & his smell, I intuited the stowaway was an Indian, alone on a boat of fifty White
Men. Very well. I nodded, slowly, to indicate I would not cry out.
The cautious hand released my lips. “My name is Autua,” he said. “You know I, you seen I,
aye—you pity I.” I asked what he was talking about. “Maori whip I—you seen.” My memory
overcame the bizarreness of my situation & I recalled the Moriori being flogged by the “Lizard
King.” This heartened him. “You good man—Mr. DArnoq tell you good man—he hid I in
your cabin yesterday night—I escape—you help, Mr. Ewing.” Now a groan escaped my lips!
& his hand clasped my mouth anew. “If you no help—I in trouble dead.”
All too true, I thought, & moreover you’ll drag me down with you, unless I convince Cpt.
Molyneux of my innocence! (I burned with resentment at DArnoq’s act & burn still. Let him
save his “good causes” & leave innocent bystanders be!) I told the stowaway he was already
“in trouble dead.” The Prophetess was a mercantile vessel, not an “underground railroad” for
rescued slaves.
“I able seaman!” insisted the Black. “I earn passage!” Well & good, I told him (dubious of his
claim to be a sailor of pedigree) & urged him to surrender himself to the captain’s mercies
forthwith. “No! They no listen I! Swim away home, Nigger, they say & throw I in drink! You
lawman aye? You go, you talk, I stay, I hide! Please. Cap’n hear you, Missa Ewing. Please.”
In vain I sought to convince him, no intercessor at Cpt. Molyneux’s court was less favored
than the Yankee Adam Ewing. The Moriori’s adventure was his own & I desired no part in it.
His hand found mine & to my consternation closed my fingers around the hilt of a dagger.
Resolute & bleak was his demand. “Then kill I.” With a terrible calmness & certitude, he
pressed its tip against his throat. I told the Indian he was mad. “I not mad, you no help I, you
kill I, just same. It’s true, you know it.” (I implored him to restrain himself & speak soft.) “So kill I. Say to others I attack you, so you kill I. I ain’t be fish food, Mr. Ewing. Die here is
Cursing my conscience singly, my fortune doubly & Mr. D’Arnoq trebly, I bade him sheath
his knife & for Heaven’s sake conceal himself lest one of the crew hear and come knocking. I
promised to approach the captain at breakfast, for to interrupt his slumbers would only ensure
the doom of the enterprise. This satisfied the stowaway & he thanked me. He slid back inside
the coils of rope, leaving me to the near-impossible task of constructing a case for an
Aboriginal stowaway, aboard an English schooner, without attainting his discoverer &
cabinmate with a charge of conspiracy. The savage’s breathing told me he was sleeping. I was
tempted to make a dash for the door & howl for help, but in the eyes of God my word was my
bond, even to an Indian.
The cacophony of timbers creaking, of masts swaying, of ropes flexing, of canvas clapping, of
feet on decks, of goats bleating, of rats scuttling, of the pumps beating, of the bell dividing the
watches, of melees & laughter from the fo’c’sle, of orders, of windlass shanties & of Tethys’
eternal realm; all lulled me as I calculated how best I could convince Cpt. Molyneux of my
innocence in Mr. D’Arnoq’s plot (now I must be more vigilant than ever that this diary should
not be read by unfriendly eyes) when a falsetto yell, beginning far off but speeding nearer at a
crossbolt’s velocity was silenced by the deck, mere inches above where I lay.
Such a terrible finality! Prone I lay, shocked & rigid, forgetting to breathe. Shouts far & near
rose, feet gathered & an alarum of “Raise Doctor Goose!” cried forth.
“Sorry b—— fall from rigging, dead now.” The Indian whispered as I made haste to
investigate the disturbance. “You can nothing, Missa Ewing.” I ordered him to stay hidden &
hurried out. I fancy the stowaway sensed how tempted I was to use the accident to betray him.
The crew stood around a man lying prone at the base of the mid-mast. By the lurching lantern
light I recognized one of the Castili-ans. (I own that my first emotion was relief that not Rafael
but another had fallen to his death.) I overheard the Icelander say the dead man had won his
compatriots’ arrack ration at cards & drunk it all before his watch. Henry arrived in his
nightshirt with his doctor’s bag. He knelt by the mangled form & felt for a pulse, but shook his
head. “This fellow has no need of a doctor.” Mr. Roderick retrieved the Castilian’s boots &
clothes for auction & Mankin fetched some third-rate sackcloth for the cadaver. (Mr.
Boerhaave will deduct the sackcloth from the auction’s profits.) The Jacks returned to their
fo’c’sle or their stations in silence, every man made somber by this reminder of the fragility of
life. Henry, Mr. Roderick & I stayed to watch the Castilians perform their Catholick death rites
over their countryman before knotting up the sack & committing his body to the deep with tears
& dolorous adíos! “Passionate Latinos,” observed Henry, bidding me a second good night. I
yearned to share the secret of the Indian with my friend, but held my tongue lest my complicity
infect him.
Returning from the melancholy scene, I saw a lantern gleam in the galley. Finbar sleeps there
“to ward off pilferers,” but he too was roused by the night’s excitement. I recalled that the
stowaway may not have eaten for a day & a half, fearfully, for what bestial depravity might a
savage not be driven to by an empty stomach? My act might have stood against me on the
morrow, but I told the cook a mighty hunger was robbing me of sleep & (at double the usual
expense “on account o’ the unseason’ble hour”) I procured a platter of sauerkraut, sausage &
buns hard as cannonballs.
Back in the confines of my cabin, the savage thanked me for the kindness & ate that humble
fare as if it were a Presidential Banquet. I did not confess my true motives, viz., the fuller his
stomach, the less likely he was to consume me, but instead asked him why, during his flogging, he had smiled at me. “Pain is strong, aye—but friends’ eyes, more strong.” I told him
that he knows next to nothing about me & I know nothing about him. He jabbed at his eyes &
jabbed at mine, as if that single gesture were ample explanation.
The wind rose higher as the middle watch wore on, making the timbers moan & whipping up
the seas & sluicing over the decks. Seawater was soon dripping into my coffin, trickling down
the walls & blotting my blanket. “You might have chosen a drier hidey-hole than mine,” I
whispered, to test the stowaways wakefulness. “Safe better’n dry, Missa Ewing,” he
murmured, alert as I. Why, I asked, was he beaten so savagely in the Indian hamlet? A silence
stretched itself out. “I seen too much o’ the world, I ain’t good slave.” To ward off seasickness
during those dreary hours, I teazed out the stowaway’s history. (I cannot, moreover, deny my
curiosity) His pidgin delivered his tale brokenly, so its substance only shall I endeavor to set
down here.
White men’s ships bore vicissitudes to Old Rekohu, as Mr. D’Arnoq narrated, but also
marvels. During my stowaway’s boyhood, Autua yearned to learn more of these pale peoples
from places whose existence, in his grandfather’s time, was the realm of myths. Autua claims
his father had been amongst the natives Lt. Broughton’s landing party encountered in Skirmish
Bay & spent his infancy hearing the yarn told & retold:—of the “Great Albatross,” paddling
through the morning mists; its vividly plumaged, strangely jointed servants who canoed ashore,
facing backwards; of the Albatross servants’ gibberish (a bird language?); of their smoke
breathing; of their heinous violation of that tapu forbidding strangers to touch canoes (doing so
curses the vessel & renders it as unseaworthy as if an ax had been taken to it); of the pursuant
altercation; of those “shouting staffs” whose magical wrath could kill a man across the beach;
& of the bright skirt of ocean-blue, cloud-white & blood-red that the servants hoisted aloft a
pole before rowing back to the Great Albatross. (This flag was removed & presented to a
chieftain, who wore it proudly until the scrofula took him.)
Autua had an uncle, Koche, who shipped aboard a Boston sealer, circa 1825. (The stowaway is
unsure of his exact age.) Mori-ori were prized crew amongst such vessels, for in lieu of martial
prowess, Rekohu’s manhood “won their spurs” by seal hunting & swimming feats. (To claim
his bride, as a further example, a young man had to dive to the seabed & surface with a crayfish
in each hand & a third in his mouth.) Newly discovered Polynesians, it should be added, make
easy prey for unscrupulous captains. Autua’s uncle Koche returned after five years, garbed in
Pakeha clothes with rings in his ears, a modest pouch of dollars & réals, possessed of strange
customs (“smoke breathing” amongst them), discordant oaths & tales of cities & sights too
outlandish for the Moriori tongue to delineate.
Autua swore to ship on the next vessel leaving Ocean Bay & see these exotic places for
himself. His uncle persuaded a second mate on a French whaler to ship the ten-year-old (?)
Autua as an apprentice. In the Moriori’s subsequent career at sea, he saw the ice ranges of
Antarctica, whales turned to islets of gore, then barrels of sperm oil; in the becalmed ashy
Encantadas, he hunted giant tortoises; in Sydney, he saw grand buildings, parks, horse-drawn
carriages & ladies in bonnets & the miracles of civilization; he shipped opium from Calcutta to
Canton; survived dysentery in Batavia; lost half of an ear in a skirmish with Mexicans afore the
altar at Santa Cruz; survived shipwreck at the Horn & saw Rio de Janeiro, though did not step
ashore; & everywhere he observed that casual brutality lighter races show the darker.
Autua returned in the summer of 1835, a worldly-wise young man of about twenty He planned
to take a local bride & build a house & cultivate some acres, but as Mr. DArnoq relates, by the
winter solstice of that year every Moriori who had not perished was a slave of the Maori. The
returnee’s years amongst crews of all nations did not elevate Autua in the invaders’ estimation. (I observed how ill-timed was the prodigal’s homecoming. “No, Missa Ewing, Rekohu called
me home, so I see her death so I know”—he tapped his head—“the truth.”)
Autua’s master was the lizard-tattooed Maori, Kupaka, who told his horrified, broken slaves
that he had come to cleanse them of their false idols (“Have your gods saved you?” taunted
Kupaka); their polluted language (“My whip will teach you pure Maori!”); their tainted blood
(“Inbreeding has diluted your original mana!”). Henceforth Moriori unions were proscribed &
all issue fathered by Maori men on Moriori women were declared Maori. The earliest
transgressors were executed in gruesome ways & the survivors lived in that state of lethargy
engendered by relentless subjugation. Autua cleared land, planted wheat & tended hogs for
Kupaka until he won enough trust to effect his escape. (“Secret places on Rekohu, Missa
Ewing, combes, pitfalls, caves deep in Motoporoporo Forest, so dense no dogs scent you
there.” I fancy I fell into one such secret place.)
A year later he was recaptured, but Moriori slaves were now too scarce to be indiscriminately
slaughtered. The lower Maori were obliged to labor alongside the serfs, much to their disgust.
(“We forsook our ancestors’ land in Aotearoa for this miserable rock?” they complained.)
Autua escaped again & during his second spell of freedom he was granted secret asylum by
Mr. DArnoq for some months, at no little risk to the latter. During this sojourn Autua was
baptized & turned to the Lord.
Kupaka’s men caught up with the fugitive after a year & six-month, but this time the mercurial
chieftain evinced a respect for Autua’s spirit. After a retributive lashing, Kupaka appointed his
slave as fisherman for his own table. Thus employed, the Moriori let another year go by until,
one afternoon, he found a rare moeeka fish flapping in his net. He told Kupaka’s wife this king
of fish could be eaten only by a king of men & showed her how to prepare it for her husband.
(“Bad bad poison this moeeka fish, Missa Ewing, one bite, aye, you sleep, you never wake no
mo’.”) During that night’s feasting, Autua snuck from the encampment, stole his master’s
canoe & rowed across the current-prone, choppy, moonless sea to deserted Pitt Island, two
leagues to the south of Chatham Isle (known as Rangiauria in Moriori & revered as mankind’s
Luck favored the stowaway, for he arrived safe at dawn as a squall blew up & no canoes made
the crossing after him. Autua subsisted in his Polynesian Eden on wild celery watercress, eggs,
berries, an occasional young boar (he risked fires only under cover of darkness or mist) & the
knowledge that Kupaka, at least, had met a condign punishment. Was his solitude not
unbearable? “Nights, ancestors visited. Days, I yarned tales of Maui to birds & birds yarned
sea tales to I.”
The fugitive lived thus for many a season until last September, when a winter gale wrecked the
whaler Eliza from Nantucket on Pitt Island Reef. All hands drowned, but our Mr. Walker,
zealous in his pursuit of easy guineas, crossed the straits seeking salvage. When he found signs
of habitation & saw Kupaka’s old canoe (each is storiated with unique carvings), he knew he
had found treasure of interest to his Maori neighbors. Two days later a large hunting party
rowed to Pitt Island from the mainland. Autua sat on the beach & watched them arrive,
surprized only to see his old enemy, Kupaka, grizzled but very much alive & shouting war
My uninvited cabinmate concluded his tale. “That b——’s greedy dog stole moeeka from
kitchen & died, not the Maori. Aye, Kupaka flogged me, but he’s old & far from home & his
mana is hollow & starved. Maori thrive on wars & revenge & feudin’, but peace kills ’em off.
Many go back to Zealand. Kupaka cannot, his land is no mo’. Then last week, Missa Ewing, I
see you & I know, you save I, I know it.”The morning watch smote four bells & my porthole betrayed a rainy dawn. I had slept a little,
but my prayers that the dawn would dissolve the Moriori were unheeded. I bade him to playact
he had only just revealed himself & make no mention of our night’s conversation. He signaled
comprehension, but I feared the worst: an Indian’s wit was no match for a Boerhaave.
Along the gangway I stepped (the Prophetess was bucking like a young bronco) to the
officers’ mess, knocked & entered. Mr. Roderick & Mr. Boerhaave were listening to Cpt.
Molyneux. I cleared my throat & bade all good morning, at which our amicable captain swore,
“You can better my morning, by b——ing off, instanter!”
Coolly, I asked when the captain might find time to hear news of an Indian stowaway who had
just emerged from the coils of hawser taking up “my so-called cabin.” During the ensuing
silence Cpt. Molyneux’s pale, horny-toad complexion turned roast beef pink. Ere his blast was
launched, I added the stowaway claimed to be an able seaman & begged to work his passage.
Mr. Boerhaave forestalled his captain with the predicted accusations & exclaimed, “On Dutch
merchantmen those who abet stowaways share their fate!” I reminded the Hollander we sailed
under an English flag & put it to him why, if I had hid the stowaway under the coils of hawser,
had I asked & asked again since Thursday night for the unwonted hawser to be removed,
thereby begging for my putative “conspiracy” to be uncovered? Hitting that bull’s-eye fired my
mettle & I assured Cpt. Molyneux that the baptized stowaway had resorted to this extreme
measure lest his Maori master, who had vowed to eat his slave’s warm liver (I sprinkled a little
“seasoning” on my version of events), directed his ungodly wrath towards his rescuer.
Mr. Boerhaave swore, “So this d——d Blackamoor wants us to be grateful to him?” No, I
replied, the Moriori asks for a chance to prove his value to the Prophetess. Mr. Boerhaave spat
out, “A stowaway is a stowaway even if he sh——s silver nuggets! What’s his name?” I did
not know, I replied, for I had not conducted an interview with the man but come to the captain
Cpt. Molyneux spoke at last. “Able seaman first class, you say?” His wrath had cooled at the
prospect of earning a valuable pair of hands he would not have to pay. “An Indian? Where did
he salt his burns?” I repeated, two minutes was insufficient to learn his history, but my instinct
considered the Indian an honest fellow.
The captain wiped his beard. “Mr. Roderick, accompany our passenger & his instinct & fetch
their pet savage afoot the mizzen.” He tossed a key to his first mate. “Mr. Boerhaave, my
fowling piece, if you please.”
The second mate & I did as bid. “A risky business,” Mr. Roderick warned me. “The only
statute book on the Prophetess is the Old Man’s Whim.” Another statute book named
Conscience is observed lex loci wherever God sees, I responded. Autua was awaiting his trial
in the cotton trowzers I purchased in Port Jackson (he had climbed aboard from Mr. D
Arnoq’s boat in naught but his savage’s loincloth & a shark-tooth necklace). His back was
exposed. His lacerations, I hoped, would pay testimony to his resilience & bestir sympathy in
the observers’ breasts.
Rats behind the arras spread tidings of the sport & most hands were gathered on deck. (My
ally, Henry, was still abed, unaware of my jeopardy.) Cpt. Molyneux sized the Moriori up as if
inspecting a mule & addressed him thus: “Mr. Ewing, who knows nothing about how you
boarded my vessel, says you regard yourself a seaman.”
Autua replied with courage & dignity “Aye, Cap’n, sir, two years on whaler Mississippi of Le
Havre under Captain Maspero & four years on Cornucopia of Philadelphia under Captain
Caton, three years on an Indiaman—”
Cpt. Molyneux interrupted & indicated Autua’s trowzers. “Did you pilfer this garment from
below?” Autua was sensible that I, too, was on trial. “That Christian gent’man gave, sir.” The
crew followed the stowaway’s finger to myself & Mr. Boerhaave thrust at the chink in my armor. “He did? When was this gift awarded?” (I recalled my father-in-law’s aphorism “To
fool a judge, feign fascination, but to bamboozle the whole court, feign boredom” & I
pretended to extract a speck from my eye.) Autua answered with primed percipience. “Ten
minutes past, sir, I, no clothes, that gent’man say, naked no good, dress this.”
“If you are a seaman”—our captain jerked his thumb aloft— “let’s see you lower this
midmast’s royal.” At this, the stowaway grew hesitant & confused & I felt the lunatick’s wager
I had placed on this Indian’s word swing against me, but Autua had merely spotted a trap. “Sir,
this mast ain’t midmast, this mast the mizzen, aye?” Impassive Cpt. Molyneux nodded. “Then
kindly lower the mizzen royal.”
Autua fairly ran up the mast & I began to hope all was not lost. The newly risen sun shone low
over the water & caused us to squint. “Ready & aim my piece,” the captain instructed Mr.
Boer-haave, once the stowaway was past the spanker gaff, “fire on my command!”
Now I protested with the utmost vigor, the Indian had received holy sacrament, but Cpt.
Molyneux ordered me to shut up or swim back to the Chathams. No American captain would
cut a man down, not even a nigger, so odiously! Autua reached the topmost yard & walked it
with simian dexterity despite the rough seas. Watching the sail unfurl, one of the “saltest”
aboard, a dour Icelander & a sober, obliging & hardworking fellow, spoke his admiration for
all to hear. “The darkie’s salt as I am, aye, he’s got fishhooks for toes!” Such was my gratitude,
I could have kissed his boots. Soon Autua had the sail down—a difficult operation even for a
team of four men. Cpt. Molyneux grunted approval & ordered Mr. Boerhaave to replace his
gun, “But d—— me if I pay a stowaway a single cent. He’ll work his passage to O-hawaii. If
he’s no shirker he may sign articles there in the regular fashion. Mr. Roderick, he can share the
dead Spaniard’s bunk.”
I have worn away a nib in narrating the day’s excitements. It is grown too dark to see.
Wednesday, 20th NovemberStrong easterly breeze, very salty & oppressive. Henry has conducted his examination & has
grave news, yet not the gravest. My Ailment is a parasite, Gusano coco cervello. This Worm is
endemic throughout both Melanesia & Polynesia, but has been known to science only these last
ten years. It breeds in the stinking canals of Batavia, doubtless the port of my own infection.
Ingested, it voyages through the host’s blood vessels to the brain’s cerebellum anterior .
(Hence my migraines & dizziness.) Ensconced in the brain, it enters a gestation phase. “You
are a realist, Adam,” Henry told me, “so your pills shall be unsugared. Once the Parasite’s
larvae hatch, the victim’s brain becomes a maggoty cauliflower. Putrescent gases cause the
eardrums & eyeballs to protrude until they pop, releasing a cloud of Gusano coco spores.”
Thus reads my death sentence, but now comes my stay of execution & appeal. An admixture of
urussium alkali & orinoco manganese will calcify my Parasite & laphrydictic myrrh will
disintegrate it. Henry’s “apothecary” holds these compounds, but a precise dosage is
paramount. Less than half a drachm leaves Gusano coco unpurged, but more kills the patient
with the cure. My doctor warns me that as the Parasite dies, its poison sacs split & secrete their
cargo, so I shall feel worse before my recovery is compleat.
Henry enjoined me not to breathe a word about my condition, for hyenas like Boerhaave prey
on the vulnerable & ignorant sailors can show hostility to maladies they know not. (“I once
heard of a sailor who showed the touch of leprosy a week out of Macao on the long haul back
to Lisbon,” recalled Henry, “and the whole company prodded the wretch overboard without a
hearing.”) During my convalescence, Henry shall inform the “scuttlebutt” that Mr. Ewing has a
low fever caused by the clime & nurse me himself. Henry bridled when I mentioned his fee. “Fee? You are no valetudinarian viscount with banknotes padding his pillows! Providence
steered you to my ministrations, for I doubt five men in this blue Pacific can cure you! So a fie
on ‘Fee’! All I ask, dear Adam, is that you are an obedient patient! Kindly take my powders &
withdraw to your cabin. I shall look in after the last dog.”
My doctor is an uncut diamond of the first water. Even as I write these words, I am tearful with
Saturday, 30th November—
Henry’s powders are indeed a wondrous medicament. I inhale the precious grains into my
nostrils from an ivory spoon & on the instant an incandescent joy burns my being. My senses
grow alert, yet my limbs grow Lethean. My Parasite still writhes at night, like a new babe’s
finger, igniting spasms of pain & dreams obscene & monstrous visit me. “A sure sign,” Henry
consoles me, “your Worm has reacted to our vermicide & seeks shelter in the recesses of your
cerebral canals whence visions spring. In vain Gusano coco hides, dear Adam, in vain. We
shall winkle ’im out!”
Monday, 2nd December—
By day, my coffin is hot as an oven & my sweat dampens these pages. The tropic sun fattens &
fills the noon sky. The men work seminaked with sun-blacked torsos & straw hats. The
planking oozes scorching tar that sticks to one’s soles. Rain squalls blow up from nowhere &
vanish with the same rapidity & the deck hisses itself dry in a minute. Portuguese man-o’-wars
pulsate in the quicksilver sea, flying fish bewitch the beholder & ocher shadows of
hammerheads circle the Prophetess. Earlier, I stepped on a squid that had propelled itself over
the bulwarks! (Its eyes & beak reminded me of my father-in-law.) The water we took on at
Chatham Isle is now brackish & without a dash of brandy in it, my stomach rebels. When not
playing chess in Henry’s cabin or the mess room, I rest in my coffin until Homer lulls me into
dreams a-billow with sails of Athenians.
Autua knocked on my coffin door yesterday to thank me for saving his neck. He said he was in
my debt (true enough) until the day he saves my life (may it never dawn!). I asked how he was
finding his new duties. “Better’n slaving for Kupaka, Missa Ewing.” Anyhow, growing
sensible of my fear someone would witness our congress & report to Cpt. Molyneux, the
Moriori returned to the fo’c’sle & has not since sought me out. As Henry warns me, “It’s one
thing to throw a blackie a bone, but quite another to take him on for life! Friendships between
races, Ewing, can never surpass the affection between a loyal gundog & its master.”
Nightly, my doctor & I enjoy a stroll on the deck before retiring. It is pleasant merely to breathe
the cooler air. One loses one’s eye in lanes of sea phosphorescence & the Mississippi of stars
streaming across the heavens. Last night, the men were gathered on the foredeck laying up
grass into sinnet for ropes by lantern light & the prohibition on “supernuminaries” on the
foredeck seemed not to apply. (Since the “Autua Incident” that contempt directed at “Mr.
Quillcock” is in recess, as is the epithet.) Bentnail sang ten verses on the world’s brothels foul
enough to put the most wanton satyr to flight. Henry volunteered an eleventh verse (about
Mary O’Hairy of Inverary) that turned the air yet bluer. Rafael was next coerced to take his
turn. He sat on the “widow maker” & sang these lines in a voice unschooled yet honest & true:
— Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you,
Hurrah, you rolling river.
Oh, Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive you,
We’re bound way ’cross the wide Missouri.
Oh, Shenandoah, I love your daughter,
I love the place across the water.
The ship sails free, the wind is blowing,
The braces taut, the sheets a-flowing.
Missouri, she’s a mighty river,
We’ll brace her up till her topsails shiver.
Oh, Shenandoah, I’ll leave you never,
Till the day I die, I’ll love you ever.
Silence from rude mariners is a grander accolade than any erudite eulogy Why should Rafael,
an Australian-born lad, have an American song by heart? “I din’t know ’twas a Yankee un,” he
replied awkwardly. “My mam teached it me before she died. It’s the only thing of hers I got
still. It stuck in me.” He turned to his work, an awkward curtness in his manner. Henry & I
sensed anew the hostility that workers emanate at the bystanding idler & so we left the toilers to
their industry.
Reading my entry for 15th October, when first I met Rafael during our shared mal de mer on
the Tasman Sea, I stand amazed at how that sprite lad, aglow with excitement at his maiden
voyage & so eager to please, has become this sullen youth in only six weeks. His luminous
beauty is chipped away, revealing the timber-muscled seaman he shall become. Already he
looks rather given to rum & water. Henry says this “sloughing off of his cocoon” is inevitable,
bon gré mal gré, & I suppose he is right. Those smatterings of education & sensibility Rafael
received from his patron, Mrs. Fry of Brisbane, serve a cabin boy ill in the harum-scarum
world of the fo’c’sle. How I wish I could help him! Were it not for the intervention of my Mr.
& Mrs. Channing, my own fate may well have been of a piece with Raf’s. I asked Finbar if he
thought the boy was “fitting in well.” Finbar’s Delphic reply, “Fitting what in well, Mr.
Ewing?” left the galley cackling but myself quite in the dark.
Saturday, 7th December—
Petrels are aloft, sooty terns afloat & Mother Careys chickens roost on the rigging. Fish similar
to borettoes pursued fish similar to sprats. As Henry & I ate supper, a blizzard of purplish
moths seemed to issue from the cracks in the moon, smothering lanterns, faces, food & every
surface in a twitching sheet of wings. To confirm these portents of nearby islands, the man at
the lead shouted a depth of only eighteen fathoms. Mr. Boerhaave ordered the anchor to be
weighed lest we drift onto a reef in the night.
The whites of my eyes have a lemon-yellow aspect & their rims are reddened & sore. Henry
assures me this symptom is welcome, but has obliged my request for an increased dosage of
Sunday, 8th December-Sabbath not being observed on the Prophetess, this morning Henry & I
decided to conduct a short Bible Reading in his cabin in the “low-church” style of Ocean Bay’s
congregation, “astraddle” the forenoon & morning watches so both starboard & port shifts
might * My father never spoke to me of the dendroglyphs & I learnt of them only in the manner
described in the Introduction. Now that the Moriori of Chatham Island are a race over
extinction’s brink, I hold them to be beyond betrayal. —J.E.
Dreamt I stood in a china shop so crowded from floor to far-off ceiling with shelves of
porcelain antiquities etc. that moving a muscle would cause several to fall and smash to bits.
Exactly what happened, but instead of a crashing noise, an august chord rang out, half-cello,
half-celeste, D major (?), held for four beats. My wrist knocked a Ming vase affair off its
pedestal—E-flat, whole string section, glorious, transcendent, angels wept. Deliberately now,
smashed a figurine of an ox for the next note, then a milkmaid, then Saturdays Child—orgy of
shrapnel filled the air, divine harmonies my head. Ah, such music! Glimpsed my father totting
up the smashed items’ value, nib flashing, but had to keep the music coming. Knew I’d
become the greatest composer of the century if I could only make this music mine. A
monstrous Laughing Cavalier flung against the wall set off a thumping battery of percussion.
Woke in my Imperial Western suite, Tam Brewer’s collectors nearly knocking my door down
and much commotion from corridor. Hadn’t even waited until I’d shaved—breathtaking
vulgarity of these ruffians. Had no choice but to exit swiftly via the bathroom window before
the brouhaha summoned the manager to discover that the young gentleman in Room 237 had
no means of settling his now-hefty balance. Escape was not hitchless, sorry to report.
Drainpipe ripped free of its mounting with the noise of a brutalized violin, and down, down,
down tumbled your old chum. Right buttock one hellish bruise. Minor miracle I didn’t shatter
my spine or impale myself on railings. Learn from this, Sixsmith. When insolvent, pack
minimally, with a valise tough enough to be thrown onto a London pavement from a first- or
second-floor window. Insist on hotel rooms no higher. Hid in a tearoom tucked into a sooty
nook of Victoria Station, trying to transcribe the music from the china shop of dreams—
couldn’t get beyond a measly two bars. Would have walked into Tam Brewer’s arms just to
have that music back again. Miserable spirits. Laboring types surrounded me with bad teeth, parrot voices, and unfounded optimism. Sobering to think how one accursed night of baccarat
can alter a man’s social standing so irreversibly. Those shopworkers, cabbies, and tradesmen
had more half crowns and threepenny bits squirreled away in their sour Stepney mattresses
than I, Son of an Ecclesiastical Somebody, can claim. Had a view of an alley: downtrodden
scriveners hurtling by like demisemiquavers in a Beethovian allegro. Afraid of ’em? No, I’m
afraid of being one. What value are education, breeding, and talent if one doesn’t have a pot to
piss in?
Still can’t believe it. I, a Caius Man, teetering on the brink of destitution. Decent hotels won’t
let me taint their lobbies now. Indecent hotels demand cash on the nail. Am barred from any
reputable gaming table this side of the Pyrenees. Anyway, I summarized my options:—
(i) Use paltry funds to obtain a dirty room in some lodging house, beg a few guineas from
Uncle Cecil Ltd., teach prissy missies their scales and bitter spinsters their technique. Come
now. If I could fake courtesy to dunces I’d still be swabbing Professor Mac-kerras’s arse with
my ex–fellow undergrads. No, before you say it, I can’t go running back to Pater with yet
another cri de cœur. Would validate every poisonous word he said about me. Would rather
jump off Waterloo Bridge and let Old Father Thames humble me. Mean it.
(ii) Hunt down Caius people, butter ’em up, and invite myself to stay for the summer.
Problematic, for same reasons as (i). How long could I conceal my starving pocketbook? How
long could I stave off their pity their talons?
(iii) Visit turf accountant—but if I lost?
Youd remind me I brought it all upon myself, Sixsmith, but shrug off that middle-class chip on
your shoulder and stick with me a little longer. Across a crowded platform, a guard announced
that the Dover-bound train for the ship to Ostend was delayed by thirty minutes. That guard
was my croupier, inviting me to double or quits. If one will just be still, shut up, and listen—lo,
behold, the world’ll sift through one’s ideas for one, esp. in a grimy London railway station.
Downed my soapy tea and strode across the concourse to the ticket office. A return ticket to
Ostend was too costly—so parlous has my position become—so a single it had to be. Boarded
my carriage just as the locomotive’s whistle blasted forth a swarm of piccolo Furies. We were
under way
Now to reveal my plan, inspired by a piece in The Times and a long soak’s daydream in my
Savoy suite. In the Belgian backwaters, south of Bruges, there lives a reclusive English
composer, named Vyvyan Ayrs. You won’t have heard of him because you’re a musical oaf,
but he’s one of the greats. The only Briton of his generation to reject pomp, circumstance,
rusticity and charm. Hasn’t produced any new work since the early twenties due to illness—
he’s half blind and can hardly hold a pen—but the Times review of his Secular Magnificat
(performed last week at St. Martin’s) referred to a drawerful of unfinished works. My
daydream had me traveling to Belgium, persuading Vyvyan Ayrs he needed to employ me as
an amanuensis, accepting his offer to tutor me, shooting through the musical firmament,
winning fame and fortune commensurate to my gifts, obliging Pater to admit that, yes, the son
he disinherited is the Robert Frobisher, greatest British composer of his time.
Why not? Had no better plan. You groan and shake your head, Sixsmith, I know, but you
smile too, which is why I love you. Uneventful journey to the Channel … cancerous suburbs,
tedious farmland, soiled Sussex. Dover an utter fright staffed by Bolsheviks, versified cliffs as
Romantic as my arse and a similar hue. Changed last shillings into francs at the port and took
my cabin aboard the Kentish Queen, a rusty tub that looks old enough to have seen service in
Crimea. Spud-faced young steward and I disagreed his burgundy uniform and unconvincing
beard were worth a tip. Sneered at my valise and manuscript folder—“Wise of you to travel
light, sir”—and left me to muck for myself. Suited me fine.
Dinner was balsawood chicken, powdery potatoes, and a bastard claret. My dining-table companion was Mr. Victor Bryant, cutlery lordling of Sheffield. Not a musical bone in his
body He expounded on the subject of spoons for most of the meal, mistook my civil
deportment for interest, and offered me a job in his sales department on the spot! Can you
believe it? Thanked him (keeping straight face) and confessed I’d rather swallow cutlery than
ever have to sell the stuff. Three mighty blasts on the foghorn, engines changed timbre, felt the
ship cast off, went on deck to watch Albion withdraw into drizzly murk. No going back now;
consequences of what Id done struck home. R.VW conducted Sea Symphony in the Orchestra
of the Mind, “Sail forth, steer for the deep waters only, Reckless, O Soul, exploring, I with
thee, and thou with me.” (Don’t much care for this work, but it was perfectly programmed.)
North Sea wind had me shivering, spray licked me from toe to crown. Glossy black waters
invited me to jump. Ignored ’em. Turned in early, leafed through Noyes’s Contrapuntals,
listened to the distant brass of the engine room and sketched a repetitive passage for trombone
based on the ship’s rhythms, but was rather rubbish, and then guess who came a-knocking at
my door? The spud-faced steward, his shift over. Gave him rather more than a tip. No Adonis,
scrawny but inventive for his class. Turfed him out afterwards and sank into the sleep of the
dead. One part of me wanted that voyage never to end.
But end it did. Kentish Queen slid into Dover’s snaggletoothed twin sister over the mucky
water, Ostend, the Lady of Dubious Virtue. Early early morning, Europe’s snoring rumbled
deep below bass tubas. Saw my first aboriginal Belgians, hauling crates, arguing, and thinking
in Flemish, Dutch, whatever. Packed my valise sharpish, afraid the ship might sail back to
England with me still aboard; or, rather, afraid of my letting this happen. Grabbed a bite from
the first-class galleys fruit bowl and dashed down the gangplank before anyone with braiding
on his uniform caught up with me. Set foot on Continental macadam and asked a Customs man
where I might find the railway station. He pointed toward a groaning tram packed with
malnourished workmen, rickets, and penury Preferred shank’s pony, drizzle or no drizzle.
Followed tramlines down coffinesque streets. Ostend is all tapioca grays and stained browns.
Will admit, I was thinking Belgium was a b. stupid country to run away to. Bought a ticket for
Bruges and hauled myself aboard the next train—no platforms, can you believe it?—a decrepit,
empty train. Moved compartment because mine smelt unpleasant, but all compartments had
same pong. Smoked cigarettes cadged off Victor Bryant to purify the air. The stationmaster’s
whistle blew on time, the locomotive strained like a gouty proctor on the pot before heaving
itself into motion. Soon steaming through a foggy landscape of unkempt dikes and blasted
copses at a fair old clip.
If my plan bears fruit, Sixsmith, you may come to Bruges before v. long. When you do, arrive
in that six o’clock in the morning gnoss/-ennesque hour. Lose yourself in the city’s rickety
streets, blind canals, wrought-iron gates, uninhabited courtyards—may I go on? Why, thank
you—leery Gothic carapaces, Ararat roofs, shrubbery-tufted brick spires, medieval overhangs,
laundry sagging from windows, cobbled whirlpools that suck your eye in, clockwork princes
and chipped princesses striking their hours, sooty doves, and three or four octaves of bells,
some sober, some bright. Aroma of fresh bread led me to a bakery where a deformed woman
with no nose sold me a dozen crescent-moon pastries. Only wanted one, but thought she had
enough problems. A rag-and-bone cart clattered out of the mist and its toothless driver spoke
companionably to me, but I could only reply, “Excusez-moi, je ne parle pas flamand,” which
made him laugh like the Goblin King. Gave him a pastry. His filthy hand was a scabby claw.
In a poor quarter (alleys stank of effluent), children helped their mothers at the pumps, filling
broken jugs with brown water. Finally, the excitement all caught up with me, sat on the steps of
a dying windmill for a breather, wrapped myself against the damp, fell asleep.
Next thing, a witch was poking me awake with her broomstick, screeching something like “Zie
gie doad misschien?” but don’t quote me. Blue sky, warm sun, not a wisp of fog to be seen. Resurrected and blinking, I offered her a pastry. She accepted with distrust, put it in her apron
for later, and got back to her sweeping, growling an ancient ditty Lucky I wasn’t robbed, I
suppose. Shared another pastry with five thousand pigeons, to the envy of a beggar, so I had to
give him one too. Walked back the way I might have come. In an odd pentagonal window a
creamy maiden was arranging Saintpaulia in a cut-glass bowl. Girls fascinate in different ways.
Try ’em one day. Tapped on the pane, and asked in French if she’d save my life by falling in
love with me. Shook her head but got an amused smile. Asked where I could find a police
station. She pointed over a crossroads. One can spot a fellow musician in any context, even
amongst policemen. The craziest-eyed, unruliest-haired one, either hungry-skinny or jovialportly This French-speaking, cor anglais–playing, local operatic society–belonging inspector
had heard of Vyvyan Ayrs and kindly drew me a map to Neerbeke. Paid him two pastries for
this intelligence. He asked if I had shipped over my British car—his son was mad keen about
Austins. Said I had no car. This worried him. How would I get to Neerbeke? No bus, no
trainline, and twenty-five miles was the devil of a walk. Asked if I could borrow a policeman’s
bicycle for an indefinite period. Told me that was most irregular. Assured him I was most
irregular, and outlined the nature of my mission to Ayrs, Belgium’s most famous adopted son
(must be so few that might even be true), in the service of European music. Repeated my
request. Implausible truth can serve one better than plausible fiction, and now was such a time.
The honest sergeant took me to a compound where lost items await rightful owners for a few
months (before finding their way to the black market)—but first, he wanted my opinion on his
baritone. He gave me a burst of “Recitar! … Vesti la giubba!” from I Pagliacci. (Pleasant
enough voice in lower registers, but his breathing needed work and his vibrato quivered like a
backstage thunder board.) Gave a few musical pointers; received the loan of a Victorian Enfield
plus cord to secure valise and folder to the saddle and rear mudguard. He wished me bon
voyage and fair weather.
Adrian would never have marched along the road I bicycled out of Bruges (too deep in Hun
territory) but nonetheless felt an affinity with my brother by virtue of breathing the same air of
the same land. The Plain is flat as the Fens but in a bad shape. Along the way I fueled myself
with the last pastries and stopped at impoverished cottages for cups of water. Nobody said
much, but nobody said no. Thanks to a headwind and a chain that kept slipping off, the
afternoon was growing old before I finally reached Ayrs’s home village of Neerbeke. A silent
blacksmith showed me how to get to Château Zedelghem by elaborating my map with a pencil
stub. A lane with harebells and toadflax growing in the middle led me past a deserted lodge
house to a once stately avenue of mature Italian poplars. Zedelghem is grander than our rectory,
some crumbly turrets adorn its west wing, but it couldn’t hold a candle to Audley End or
Capon-Tench’s country seat. Spied a girl riding a horse over a low hill crowned by a
shipwrecked beech tree. Passed a gardener spreading soot against the slugs in a vegetable
garden. In the forecourt, a muscle-bound valet was decoking a Cowley Flat Nose. Seeing my
approach, he rose and waited for me. In a terraced corner of this frieze, a man in a wheelchair
sat under foamy wisteria listening to the wireless. Vyvyan Ayrs, I presumed. The easy part of
my daydream was over.
Leant the bicycle against the wall, told the valet I had business with his master. He was civil
enough, and led me around to Ayrs’s terrace, and announced my arrival in German. Ayrs a
husk of a man, as if his illness has sucked all juice out of him, but stopped myself kneeling on
the cinder path like Sir Percival before King Arthur. Our overture proceeded more or less like
this. “Good afternoon, Mr. Ayrs.”
“Who in hell are you?”
“It’s a great honor to—”
“I said, ‘Who in hell are you?’ ”“Robert Frobisher, sir, from Saffron Walden. I am—I was— a student of Sir Trevor
Mackerras at Caius College, and I’ve come all the way from London to—”
“All the way from London on a bicycle?”
“No. I borrowed the bicycle from a policeman in Bruges.”
“Did you?” Pause for thought. “Must have taken hours.”
“A labor of love, sir. Like pilgrims climbing hills on their knees.”
“What balderdash is this?”
“I wished to prove I’m a serious applicant.”
“Serious applicant for what?”
“The post of your amanuensis.”
“Are you mad?”
Always a trickier question than it looks. “I doubt it.”
“Look here, I’ve not advertised for an amanuensis!”
“I know, sir, but you need one, even if you don’t know it yet. The Times piece said that you’re
unable to compose new works because of your illness. I can’t allow your music to be lost. It’s
far, far too precious. So I’m here to offer you my services.”
Well, he didn’t dismiss me out of hand. “What did you say your name was?” I told him. “One
of Mackerras’s shooting stars, are you?”
“Frankly, sir, he loathed me.”
As you’ve learned to your cost, I can be intriguing when I put my mind to it.
“He did, did he? Why might that be?”
“I called his sixth Concerto for Flute”—I cleared my throat— “ ‘a slave of prepubescent SaintSaëns at his most florid’ in the college magazine. He took it personally.”
“You wrote that about Mackerras?” Ayrs wheezed as if his ribs were being sawed. “I’ll bet he
took it personally”
The sequel is short. The valet showed me into a drawing room decorated in eggshell green, a
dull Farquharson of sheep and cornstooks, and a not-very-good Dutch landscape. Ayrs
summoned his wife, Mrs. van Outryve de Crommelynck. She kept her own name, and with a
name like that who can blame her? The lady of the house was coolly courteous and inquired
into my background. Answered truthfully, though I veiled my expulsion from Caius behind an
obscure malady Of my present financial straits I breathed not a word—the more desperate the
case, the more reluctant the donor. Charmed ’em sufficiently It was agreed I could at least stay
the night at Zedelghem. Ayrs would put me through my musical paces in the morning,
permitting a decision on my proposal.
Ayrs did not appear at dinner, however. My arrival coincided with the start of a fortnightly
migraine, which confines him to his rooms for a day or two. My audition is postponed until he
is better, so my fate still hangs in the balance. On the credit side, the Pies-porter and lobster à
l’américaine were the equal to anything at the Imperial. Encouraged my hostess to talk—think
she was flattered at how much I know about her illustrious husband, and sensed my genuine
love of his music. Oh, we ate with Ayrs’s daughter, too, the young equestrienne I’d glimpsed
earlier. Mlle. Ayrs is a horsey creature of seventeen with her mama’s retroussé nose. Couldn’t
get a civil word out of her all evening. Might she see in me a louche English freeloader down
on his luck, here to lure her sickly father into a glorious Indian summer where she can’t follow
and isn’t welcome?
People are complicated.
Gone midnight. The château is sleeping, so must I.

A telegram, Sixsmith? You ass.
Don’t send any more, I beg you—telegrams attract attention! Yes, I’m still Abroad, yes, safe
from Brewer’s knuckle men. Fold my parents’ mortifying letter into a paper boat and sail it
down the Cam. Pater’s only “concerned” because my creditors are shaking him to see if any
banknotes drop from the family tree. Debts of a disinherited son, however, are nobody’s
business but the son’s— believe me, I’ve looked into the legalities. Mater is not “frantic.” Only
the prospect of the decanter running dry could make Mater frantic.
My audition took place in Ayrs’s music room, after lunch, the day before yesterday. Not an
overwhelming success, putting it mildly—no knowing how many days I’ll be here, or how
few. Admit to a certain frisson sitting on Vyvyan Ayrs’s own piano stool beforehand. This
Oriental rug, battered divan, Breton cupboards crammed with music stands, Bösendorfer
grand, carillon, all witnessed the conception and birth of Matryoshka Doll Variations and his
song cycle Society Islands. Stroked the same ’cello who first vibrated to Untergehen
Violinkonzert. Hearing Hendrick wheeling his master this way, I stopped snooping and faced
the doorway. Ayrs ignored my “I do hope you’re recovered, Mr. Ayrs” and had his valet leave
him facing the garden window. “Well?” he asked, after we’d been alone half a minute. “Go on.
Impress me.” Asked what he wanted to hear. “I must select the program, too? Well, have you
mastered ‘Three Blind Mice’?”
So I sat at the Bösendorfer and played the syphilitic crank “Three Blind Mice,” after the fashion
of a mordant Prokofiev. Ayrs did not comment. Continued in a subtler vein with Chopin’s
Nocturne in F Major. He interrupted with a whine, “Trying to slip my petticoats off my ankles,
Frobisher?” Played VA.’s own Digressions on a Theme of Lodovico Roncalli, but before the
first two bars were out, he’d uttered a six-birch expletive, banged on the floor with his cane,
and said, “Self-gratification makes you go blind, didn’t they teach you that at Caius?” Ignored
him and finished the piece note perfect. For a finale of fireworks, gambled on Scarlatti’s 212th
in A major, a bête noire of arpeggios and acrobatics. Came unstuck once or twice, but I wasn’t
being auditioned as a concert soloist. After I’d finished, VA. kept swinging his head to the
rhythm of the disappeared sonata; or maybe he was conducting the blurry, swaying poplars.
“Execrable, Frobisher, get out of my house this instant!” would have aggrieved but not much
surprised me. Instead, he admitted, “You may have the makings of a musician. It’s a nice day.
Amble over to the lake and see the ducks. I need, oh, a little time to decide whether or not I can
find a use for your … gifts.”
Left without a word. The old goat wants me, it seems, but only if I’m pathetic with gratitude. If
my pocketbook had allowed me to go, I’d have hired a cab back to Bruges and renounced the
whole errant idea. He called after me, “Some advice, Frobisher, gratis. Scarlatti was a harpsichordist, not a pianist. Don’t drench him in color so, and don’t use the pedal to sustain
notes you can’t sustain with the fingers.” I called back that I needed, oh, a little time to decide
whether or not I could find a use for Ayrs’s … gift.
Crossed the courtyard, where a beetroot-faced gardener was clearing a weed-choked fountain.
Made him understand I wanted to speak to his mistress and pronto—he is not the sharpest tool
in the shed—and he waved vaguely toward Neerbeke, miming a steering wheel. Wonderful.
What now? See the ducks, why not? Could strangle a brace and leave ’em hanging in VA.’s
wardrobe. Mood was that black. So I mimed ducks and asked the gardener, “Where?” He
pointed at the beech tree, and his gesture said, Walk that way, just on the other side. I set off,
jumped a neglected ha-ha, but before I’d reached the crest, the noise of galloping bore down on
me, and Miss Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck—from now plain old Crommelynck shall
have to do or I’ll run out of ink—rode up on her black pony.
I greeted her. She cantered around me like Queen Boadicea, pointedly unresponsive. “How
humid the air is today,” I small-talked sarcastically. “I rather think we shall have rain later,
wouldn’t you agree?” She said nothing. “Your dressage is more polished than your manners,”
I told her. Nothing. Shooting guns crackled across the fields, and Eva reassured her mount.
Her mount is a beaut—one can’t blame the horse. I asked Eva for the pony’s name. She
stroked back some black, corkscrew locks from her cheeks. “J’ai nommé le poney Néfertiti,
d’après cette reine d’Egypte qui m’est si chère,” she replied and turned away “It speaks!” I
cried and watched the girl gallop off until she was a miniature in the Van Dyck pastoral. Fired
artillery shells after her in elegant parabolas. Turned my guns on Château Zedelghem and
pounded Ayrs’s wing to smoking rubble. Remembered what country we are in and stopped.
Past the sundered beech, the meadow falls away to an ornamental lake, ringing with frogs.
Seen better days. A precarious footbridge connects an island to the shore, and flamingo lilies
bloom in vast numbers. Now and then goldfish splish and gleam like new pennies dropped in
water. Whiskered mandarin ducks honk for bread, exquisitely tailored beggars—rather like
myself. Martins nest in a boathouse of tarred boards. Under a row of pear trees—once an
orchard?—I laid me down and idled, an art perfected during my long convalescence. An idler
and a sluggard are as different as a gourmand and a glutton. Watched the aerial bliss of coupled
dragonflies. Even heard their wings, an ecstatic sound like paper flaps in bicycle spokes. Gazed
on a slowworm exploring a miniature Amazonia around the roots where I lay. Silent? Not
altogether, no. Was woken much later, by first spots of rain. Cumu-lonimbi were reaching
critical mass. Sprinted back to Zedelghem as fast as I’ll ever run again, just to hear the rushing
roar in my ear canals and feel the first fat droplets pound my face like xylophone hammers.
Just had time to change into my one clean shirt before the dinner gong. Mrs. Crommelynck
apologized, her husband’s appetite was still feeble and demoiselle preferred to eat alone.
Nothing suited me better. Stewed eel, chervil sauce, the rain skittering on terrace. Unlike the
Frobishery and most English homes I have known, meals at the château are not conducted in
silence, and Mme. C told me a little about her family. Crommelyncks have lived at Zedelghem
since far-off days when Bruges was Europe’s busiest seaport (so she told me, hard to credit),
making Eva the crowning glory of six centuries’ breeding. Warmed to the woman somewhat, I
admit it. She holds forth like a man and smokes myrrhy cigarettes through a rhino-horn holder.
She’d notice pretty sharpish if any valuables were spirited away, however. They’ve suffered
from thieving servants in the past, she happened to mention, even one or two impoverished
houseguests, if I could believe people could behave so dishonorably. Assured her my parents
had suffered the same way, and put out feelers re: my audition. “He did describe your Scarlatti
as ‘salvageable.’ Vyvyan spurns praise, both giving and receiving it. He says, ‘If people praise
you, you’re not walking your own path.’ ” Asked directly if she thought he’d agree to take me
on. “I do hope so, Robert.” (In other words, wait and see.) “You must understand, he resigned himself never to compose another note. Doing so caused him great pain. Resurrecting hope that
he might compose again—well, that’s not a risk to be undertaken lightly.” Subject closed. I
mentioned my earlier encounter with Eva, and Mme. C pronounced, “My daughter was
“Reserved” was my perfect reply.
My hostess topped up my glass. “Eva has a disagreeable nature. My husband has taken very
little interest in rearing her like a young lady. He never wanted children. Fathers and daughters
are reputed to dote on each other, are they not? Not here. Her teachers say Eva is studious but
secretive, and she’s never tried to develop herself musically I often feel I don’t know her at all.”
I filled Mme. C.’s glass, and she seemed to cheer up. “Listen to me, lamenting. Your sisters are
immaculately mannered English roses, I am sure, Monsieur?” Rather doubt her interest in the
Frobishery’s memsahibs was genuine, but the woman likes to watch me talk, so I painted witty
caricatures of my estranged clan for my hostess’s amusement. Made us all sound so gay,
almost felt homesick.
This morning, a Monday, Eva deigned to share breakfast— Bradenham ham, eggs, bread, all
sorts—but the girl spouted petty complaints to her mother and snuffed my interjections out
with a flat oui or a sharp non. Ayrs was feeling better so ate with us. Hen-drick then drove the
daughter off to Bruges for another week at school—Eva boards in the city with a family whose
daughters also attend her school, the Van Eels or some such. Whole château breathed a relieved
sigh when the Cowley had cleared the poplar avenue (known as the Monk’s Walk). Eva does
so poison the air of the place. At nine, Ayrs and I adjourned to the music room. “I’ve got a little
melody for viola rattling about my head, Frobisher. Let’s see if you can get it down.” Was
delighted to hear it, as I’d expected to start at the shallow end—tidying up sketchy MSS into
best copy and so forth. If I proved my worth as VA.’s sentient fountain pen on my first day,
my tenure would be well-nigh assured. Sat at his desk, sharpened 2B at the ready, clean MS,
waiting for him to name the notes, one by one. Suddenly, the man bellowed: “ ‘Tar, tar! Tartartar tattytattytatty tar!’ Got that? ‘Tar! Tatty-tar! Quiet part—tartar-tar-tttt-TAR!
TARTARTAR!!!’” Got that? Old ass obviously thought this was amusing—one could no
more notate his shouted garble than one could score the braying of a dozen donkeys—but after
another thirty seconds, it dawned on me this was no joke. Tried to interrupt, but the man was
so engrossed in his music making that he didn’t notice. Sunk into deepest misery while Ayrs
carried on, and on, and on … My scheme was hopeless. What had I been thinking about at
Victoria Station? Dejected, I let him work through his piece in the lean hope that having it
complete in his head might make it easier to duplicate later.
“There, finished!” he proclaimed. “Got it? Hum it back, Frobisher, and then let’s see how it
Asked what key we were in. “B-flat, of course!” Time signature? Ayrs pinched the bridge of
his nose. “Are you saying you’ve lost my melody?” Struggled to remind myself he was being
totally unreasonable. I asked him to repeat the melody much more slowly and to label his notes,
one by one. There was an acute pause that felt about three hours long while Ayrs decided
whether or not to throw a tantrum. In the end, he released a martyred sigh. “Four-eight,
changing to eight-eight after the twelfth bar, if you can count that far.” Pause. Remembered my
monetary difficulties and bit my lip. “Let’s go all the way back, then.” Patronizing pause.
“Ready now? Slowly … Tar! What note is that?” Got through a hideous half hour with me
guessing every single note, one by one. Ayrs verified or rejected my guess with a weary nod or
shake of the head. Mme. C carried in a vase of flowers and I made an SOS face, but VA.
himself declared that we call it a day. As I fled, I heard Ayrs pronounce (for my benefit?), “It is
desperate, Jocasta, the boy cannot take down a simple tune. I might as well join the avant-garde
and throw darts at pieces of paper with notes written on ’em.”Down the passageway Mrs. Willems—housekeeper—laments the damp, blustery weather and
her wet laundry to some unseen underling. She’s better off than I am. I’ve manipulated people
for advancement, lust, or loans, but never for the roof over my head. This rotting château stinks
of mushrooms and mold. Should never have come here.
P.S. Financial “embarrassment,” what an apposite phrase. No wonder the poor are all
socialists. Look, must ask you for a loan. The regime at Zedelghem is the laxest I ever saw
(fortunately! My father’s butler’s wardrobe is better supplied than my own at present), but one
needs to set some standards. Can’t even tip the servants. If I had any wealthy friends left, I’d
ask ’em, but truth is I don’t. Don’t know how you wire money or telegram it or send it in
packets or whatever, but you’re the scientist, you find a way. If Ayrs asks me to leave, I’ll be
scuppered. The news would seep back to Cambridge that Robert Frobisher had to beg money
from his erstwhile hosts when they threw him out for not being up to the job. The shame
would kill me, Sixsmith, it truly would. For God’s sake send whatever you can immediately.

All praise Rufus the Blessed, Patron Saint of Needy Composers, Praise in the Highest, Amen.
Your postal order arrived safe and sound this morning—I painted you to my hosts as a doting
uncle whod forgotten my birthday. Mrs. Crommelynck confirms a bank in Bruges will cash it.
Will write a motet in your honor and pay your money back soon as I can. Might be sooner than
you expect. The deep freeze on my prospects is thawing. After my humiliating first attempt at
collaboration with Ayrs, I returned to my room in abject wretchedness. That afternoon I spent
writing my sniveling lament to you—burn it, by the way, if you haven’t already—feeling v.
anxious about the future. Braved the rain in Wellington boots and a cape and walked to the post
office in the village, wondering, frankly, where I might be a month from now. Mrs. Willems
bonged the gong for dinner shortly after my return, but when I got to the dining hall, Ayrs was
waiting, alone. “That you, Frobisher?” he asked, with the gruffness habitual to older men trying
to do delicacy. “Ah, Frobisher, glad we can have this little chat alone. Look, I was rotten to you
this morning. My illness makes me more … direct than is sometimes appropriate. I apologize.
Give this cantankerous so-and-so another chance tomorrow, what d’you say?”
Had his wife told him what state she’d found me in? Had Lucille mentioned my half-packed valise? Waited until I was sure my voice was purged of relief and told him, nobly, nothing was
wrong in speaking his mind.
“I’ve been far too negative about your proposal, Frobisher. It won’t be easy extracting music
out of my noddle, but our partnership stands as good a chance as any Your musicianship and
character seem more than up to the job. My wife tells me you even try your hand at
composition? Plainly, music is oxygen for us both. With the right will, we’ll muddle along until
we hit upon the right method.” At this, Mme. Crommelynck knocked, peered in, sensed the
room’s weather in a trice the way some women do, and asked if a celebratory drink was called
for. Ayrs turned to me. “That depends on young Frobisher here. What d’you say? Will you
stay for a few weeks, with a view to a few months, if all goes well? Maybe longer, who
knows? But you must accept a small salary.”
Let my relief show as pleasure, told him I’d be honored, and did not out of hand reject the offer
of a salary.
“Then, Jocasta, tell Mrs. Willems to fetch a Pinot Rouge 1908!” We toasted Bacchus and the
Muses, and drank a wine rich as unicorn’s blood. Ayrs’s cellar, some twelve hundred bottles,
is one of the finest in Belgium, and worth a brief digression. It survived the war unlooted by
the Hun officers who used Zedelghem as a command post, all thanks to a false wall Hendrick’s
father built over its entrance before the family’s flight to Gothenburg. The library, and various
other bulky treasures, also spent the war down there (used to be the vaults of a monastery),
sealed up in crates. The Prussians ransacked the building before Armistice, but they never
rumbled the cellar.
A work routine is developing. Ayrs and I are in the music room by nine o’clock every morning
his various ailments and pains let him. I sit at the piano, Ayrs on the divan, smoking his vile
Turkish cigarettes, and we adopt one of our three modi operandi. “Revisionals”— he asks me
to run through the previous morning’s work. I hum, sing, or play, depending on the
instrument, and Ayrs modifies the score. “Reconstitutionals” have me sifting through old
scores, notebooks, and compositions, some written before I was born, to locate a passage or
cadenza Ayrs dimly remembers and wants to salvage. Great detective work. “Compositionals”
are the most demanding. I sit at the piano and try to keep up with a flow of “Semiquaver, B-G;
semibreve, A-flat—hold it four beats, no, six—crotchets! F-sharp— no no no no F-sharp—
and … B! Tar-tatty-tatty-tarrr!” (il maestro will at least name his notes now.) Or, if he’s feeling
more poetic, it might be “Now, Frobisher, the clarinet is the concubine, the violas are yew trees
in the cemetery, the clavichord is the moon, so … let the east wind blow that A minor chord,
sixteenth bar onwards.”
Like that of a good butler (although you can be sure, I am better than good), my job is ninetenths anticipation. Sometimes Ayrs will ask for an artistic judgment, something like “D’you
think this chord works, Frobisher?” or “Is this passage in keeping with the whole?” If I say no,
Ayrs asks me what I’d suggest as a substitute, and once or twice he’s even used my
amendment. Quite sobering. People in the future will be studying this music.
By one o’clock Ayrs is spent. Hendrick carries him down to the dining room, where Mrs.
Crommelynck joins us for luncheon, and the dreaded E., if she’s back for the w/end or a half
holiday. Ayrs naps through the afternoon heat. I continue to sift the library for treasure,
compose in the music room, read manuscripts in the garden (Madonna lilies, crowns imperial,
red-hot pokers, hollyhocks, all blooming bright), navigate lanes around Neerbeke on the
bicycle, or ramble across local fields. Am firm friends with the village dogs. They gallop after
me like the Pied Piper’s rats or brats. The locals return my “Goede morgen” and “Goede
middag”—I’m now known as the long-term guest up at the “kasteel.”
After supper, the three of us might listen to the wireless if there is a broadcast that passes
muster, otherwise it will be recordings on the gramophone (an His Master’s Voice table model in an oak box), usually of Ayrs’s own major works conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. When
we have visitors, there will be conversation or a little chamber music. Other nights, Ayrs likes
me to read him poetry, especially his beloved Keats. He whispers the verses as I recite, as if his
voice is leaning on mine. At breakfast, he has me read from The Times. Old, blind, and sick as
Ayrs is, he could hold his own in a college debating society, though I notice he rarely proposes
alternatives for the systems he ridicules. “Liberality? Timidity in the rich!” “Socialism? The
younger brother of a decrepit despotism, which it wants to succeed” “Conservatives?
Adventitious liars, whose doctrine of free will is their greatest deception.” What sort of state
does he want? “None! The better organized the state, the duller its humanity”
Irascible as Ayrs is, he’s one of few men in Europe whose influence I want my own creativity
informed by. Musicologically he’s Janus-headed. One Ayrs looks back to Romanticism’s
deathbed, the other looks to the future. This is the Ayrs whose gaze I follow. Watching him use
counterpoint and mix colors refines my own language in exciting ways. Already, my short time
at Zedelghem has taught me more than three years at the throne of Mackerras the Jackass with
his Merry Band of Onanists.
Friends of Ayrs and Mrs. Crommelynck regularly visit. On an average week, we can expect
visitor/s two or three nights. Soloists returning from Brussels, Berlin, Amsterdam, or beyond;
acquaintances from Ayrs’s salad days in Florida or Paris; and good old Morty Dhondt and
Wife. Dhondt owns a diamond workshop in both Bruges and Antwerp, speaks a hazy but high
number of languages, concocts elaborate multilingual puns requiring lengthy explanations,
sponsors festivals, and kicks metaphysical footballs around with Ayrs. Mrs. Dhondt is like
Mrs. Crommelynck but ten times more so—in truth, a dreadful creation who heads the Belgian
Equestrian Society drives the Dhondt Bugatti herself, and cossets a powder-puff Pekingese
called Wei-wei. You’ll meet her again in future letters, no doubt.
Relatives thin on the ground: Ayrs was an only child, and the once-influential Crommelynck
family evinced a perverse genius for backing the wrong side at decisive moments throughout
the war. Those who didn’t die in action were mostly pauperized and diseased out of existence
by the time Ayrs and his wife returned from Scandinavia. Others died after running away
overseas. Mrs. Crommelynck’s old governess and a couple of frail aunts sometimes pay a call,
but they stay quietly in the corner like old hat stands.
Last week the conductor Tadeusz Augustowski, a great champion of Ayrs in his native
Cracow, dropped by unannounced on a Second Day of Migraine. Mrs. Crommelynck was not
at home, and Mrs. Willems came to me all of a lather, begging me to entertain the illustrious
visitor. I could not disappoint. Augustowski’s French is as good as my own, and we spent the
afternoon fishing and arguing over the dodecaphonists. He thinks they are all charlatans, I do
not. He told me orchestral war stories, and one indescribably smutty joke that involves hand
gestures, so it must wait until we meet again. I caught an eleven-inch trout, and Augustowski
bagged a monster dace. Ayrs was up when we got back at twilight, and the Pole told him he
was lucky to have engaged me. Ayrs grunted something like “Quite.” Enchanting flattery,
Ayrs. Mrs. Willems was less than enchantée with our finny trophies, but she gutted ’em,
cooked ’em in salt and butter, and they melted on the fish fork. Augustowski gave me his
visiting card when he departed the next morning. He keeps a suite at the Langham Court for his
London visits, and invited me to stay with him for next year’s festival. Cock-a-doodle-doo!
Château Zedelghem isn’t the labyrinthine House of Usher it seems at first. True, its west wing,
shuttered and dust-sheeted to pay for modernization and upkeep of the east, is in a woebegone
state, and will need the demolishers before v. long I fear. Explored its chambers one wet
afternoon. Damp disastrous; fallen plaster hangs in nets of cobwebs; mouse, bat droppings
crunch on the worn stones; plaster escutcheons above fireplaces sanded over by time. Same
story outside—brick walls need new pointing, roof tiles missing, crenellations toppled to the ground and lying in piles, rainwater runneling medieval sandstone. The Crommelyncks did
well from Congo investments, but not one male sibling survived the war, and Zedelghem’s
Boche “lodgers” selectively gutted whatever was worth looting.
The east wing, however, is a comfortable little warren, though its roof timbers creak like a ship
when the wind’s up. There’s a moody central-heating system and rudimentary electricity that
gives one crackling electric shocks from the light switches. Mrs. Crommelynck’s father had
enough foresight to teach his daughter the estate business, and now she leases her land to
neighboring farmers and just about makes the place pay, so I gather. Not an achievement to be
sniffed at in this day and age.
Eva still a prissy missy, as hateful as my sisters, but with an intelligence to match her enmity
Apart from her precious Nefertiti, her hobbies are pouting and looking martyred. She likes to
reduce vulnerable domestics to tears, then flounces in, announcing, “She’s having another
weeping fit, Mama, can’t you break her in properly?” She has established I am no soft target
and embarked on a war of attrition: “Papa, how long is Mr. Frobisher to stay in our house?”
“Papa, do you pay Mr. Frobisher as much as you pay Hendrick?” “Oh, I was only asking,
Mama, I didn’t know Mr. Frobisher’s tenure was a delicate subject.” She rattles me, hate to
hand it to her, but there it is. Had another encounter—confrontation more the word— on
Saturday just gone. I’d taken Ayrs’s bible, Also sprach Zarathustra, to the stone slab bridge
over the lake to the willow-tree island. A scorching hot afternoon; even in the shade I was
sweating like a pig. After ten pages I felt Nietzsche was reading me, not I him, so I watched the
water boatmen and newts while my mind-orchestra performed Fred Delius’s Air and Dance.
Syrupy florentine of a piece, but its drowsy flute is rather successful.
Next thing I knew, found myself in a trench so deep the sky was a strip high above, lit by
flashes brighter than day. Savages patrolled the trench astraddle giant, evil-toothed, brown rats
that sniffed out working-class people and dismembered ’em. Strolled, trying to look well-to-do
and stop myself breaking into a panicky run, when I met Eva. I said, “What in hell are you
doing down here?”
Eva replied with fury! “Ce lac appartient à ma famille depuis cinq siècles! Vous êtes ici depuis
combien de temps exactement? Bien trois semaines! Alors vous voyez, je vais où bon me
semble!” Her anger was almost physical, a kick in your humble correspondent’s face. Fair
enough, I had accused her of trespassing on her mother’s estate. Wide awake, I stumbled to my
feet, all apologies, explaining I had spoken whilst dreaming. Quite forgot about the lake.
Plunged right in like a b fool! Soaked! Luckily the pond was only navel-high, and God had
saved Ayrs’s precious Nietzsche from joining me in the drink. When Eva eventually reined in
her laughter, I said I was pleased to see her do something other than pout. I had duckweed in
my hair, she answered, in English. Was reduced to patronizing her by praising her language
skills. She batted back, “It does not take much to impress an Englishman.” Walked off.
Couldn’t think of a snappy response until later, so the girl won the set.
Now, pay attention while I talk books and lucre. Poking through an alcove of books in my
room, I came across a curious dismembered volume, and I want you to track down a complete
copy for me. It begins on the ninety-ninth page, its covers are gone, its binding unstitched.
From what little I can glean, it’s the edited journal of a voyage from Sydney to California by a
notary of San Francisco named Adam Ewing. Mention is made of the gold rush, so I suppose
we are in 1849 or 1850. The journal seems to be published posthumously, by Ewing’s son (?).
Ewing puts me in mind of Melville’s bumbler Cpt. Delano in “Benito Cereno,” blind to all
conspirators—he hasn’t spotted his trusty Dr. Henry Goose [sic] is a vampire, fueling his
hypochondria in order to poison him, slowly, for his money.
Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity—seems too structured for a genuine diary,
and its language doesn’t ring quite true—but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?
To my great annoyance, the pages cease, midsentence, some forty pages later, where the
binding is worn through. Searched high and low in the library for the rest of the damn thing.
No luck. Hardly in our interests to draw Ayrs’s or Mrs. Crommelynck’s attention to their
unindexed bibliographic wealth, so I’m up a gum tree. Would you ask Otto Jansch on
Caithness Street if he knows anything about this Adam Ewing? A half-read book is a half-
finished love affair.
Find enclosed an inventory of the oldest editions in Zedel-ghem’s library As you see, some
items are v. early early seventeenth c, so send me Jansch’s best prices as soon as ever, and keep
the tightwad on his toes by letting it slip you’ve got the Parisian dealers interested.
*  *  *
Cause for minor celebration. Two days ago, Ayrs and I completed our first collaboration, a
short tone poem, “Der Todtenvo-gel.” When I unearthed the piece, it was a tame arrangement
of an old Teutonic anthem, left high and very dry by Ayrs’s retreating eyesight. Our new
version is an intriguing animal. It borrows resonances from Wagner’s Ring, then disintegrates
the theme into a Stravinskyesque nightmare policed by Sibelian wraiths. Horrible, delectable,
wish you could hear it. Ends in a flute solo, no flutter-bying flautism this, but the death-bird of
the title, cursing the firstborn and last-born alike.
Augustowski visited again on his way back from Paris yesterday. He read the score and
shoveled praise upon it like a boiler man shoveling coals. So he should! It’s the most
accomplished tone poem I know of written since the war; and I tell you, Sixsmith, that more
than a few of its best ideas are mine. Suppose an amanuensis must reconcile himself to
renouncing his share in authorship, but buttoning one’s lip is never easy But best is yet to come
— Augustowski wants to premiere the work under his own baton three weeks from now at the
Cracow festival!
Got up at crack of dawn yesterday, spent all day transcribing a clean copy. Suddenly it didn’t
seem so short. My writing hand came unscrewed and staves imprinted themselves in my
eyelids, but finished by supper. We drank five bottles of wine between the four of us to
celebrate. Dessert was the best muscatel.
Am now Zedelghem’s golden boy. Been a v. long time since I was anyone’s golden boy and I
rather like it. Jocasta suggested that I move out of my guest room into one of the larger unused bedrooms on the second floor, furnished as I pleased with whatever catches my eye from
elsewhere in Zedelghem. Ayrs seconded the motion, so I said I would. To my delight Prissy
Missy lost her sangfroid and mewled, “Oh, why don’t you just write him into the will as well,
Mama? Why not give him half the estate?” She got down from the table without being excused.
Ayrs croaked, “First good idea the girl’s had in seventeen years!” loud enough for her to hear.
“At least Frobisher earns his damn keep!”
My hosts wouldn’t hear my apologies, they said Eva should be apologizing to me, that she has
to lose her pre-Copernican view of a universe revolving around herself. Music to my ears.
Also re: Eva, she and twenty classmates are bound for Switzerland v. soon to study at a sister
school for a couple of months. More music! It’ll be like having a rotten tooth fall out. My new
room is big enough for badminton doubles; has a four-poster bed from whose curtains I had to
shake last year’s moths; centuries-old Cordova peels off the walls like dragons’ scales, but it’s
attractive in its way; indigo witch ball; armoire inlaid with burr walnut; six ministerial
armchairs, and a sycamore escritoire at which I write this letter. Honeysuckle laces abundant
light. To the south one looks over the grizzled topiary To the west, cows graze in the meadow,
and the church tower rises above the wood beyond. Its bells are my own clock. (In truth,
Zedelghem boasts a good many antique clocks, whose chimes go off some early, some late,
like a Bruges in miniature.) All in all, a notch or two grander than our chambers in Whyman’s
Lane, a notch or two less grand than the Savoy or the Imperial, but spacious and secure. Unless
I do something clumsy or indiscreet.
Which brings me to Madame Jocasta Crommelynck Damn my eyes, Sixsmith, if the woman
hasn’t begun, subtly, to flirt with me. The ambiguity of her words, eyes, and hand brushes is
too consummate to be chance. See what you think. Yesterday afternoon, I was studying rare
Balakirev juvenilia in my room when Mrs. Crom-melynck knocked. She wore her riding jacket
and her hair pinned up to reveal a rather tempting neck. “My husband wants to give you a
present,” she said, moving in as I gave way “Here. To mark the completion of ‘Todtenvogel.’
You know, Robert,”—her tongue lingers on the t of “Robert”—“Vyvyan’s so very happy to be
working again. He hasn’t been this spry for years. This is just a token. Put it on.” She handed
me an exquisite waistcoat, an Ottoman-style silken affair, too remarkable in pattern to be ever in
fashion or out. “I bought it on our honeymoon in Cairo, when he was your age now. He won’t
be wearing it again.”
Said I was flattered, but protested that I couldn’t possibly accept a garment of such sentimental
value. “That’s precisely why we want you to wear it. Our memories are in its weave. Put it on.”
Did as urged, and she stroked it, on the pretext (?) of removing fluff. “Come to the mirror!”
Did so. The woman stood just inches behind me. “Too fine for moths’ eggs, don’t you agree?”
Yes, I agreed. Her smile was double-bladed. If we were in one of Emily’s breathy novels, the
seductress’s hands would have encircled the innocent’s torso, but Jocasta is a more canny
operator. “You have exactly the same physique Vyvyan had at your age. Bizarre, isn’t it?” Yes,
I agreed again. Her fingernails freed a strand of my hair that had got caught in the waistcoat.
Neither rebuffed nor encouraged her. These things shouldn’t be rushed. Mrs. Crommelynck
left without another word.
At luncheon, Hendrick reported that Dr. Egret’s house in Neer-beke had been burgled. Luckily
no one was hurt, but the police have issued a warning to be on the lookout for gypsies and
ruffians. Houses should be secured at night. Jocasta shuddered and said she was glad I was at
Zedelghem to protect her. Admitted I’d held my own as a pugilist at Eton, but doubted whether
I could see off a whole gang of ruffians. Perhaps I could hold Hendrick’s towel whilst he gave
’em all a sound drubbing? Ayrs didn’t comment, but that evening he unwrapped a Luger from
his napkin. Jocasta chastised Ayrs for showing his pistol at the dinner table, but he ignored her.
“On our return from Gothenburg, I found this beastie hidden under a loose floorboard in the master bedroom, with its bullets,” he explained. “The Prussian captain either left in a hurry or
got himself killed. He stowed it there perhaps as an insurance policy against mutineers, or
undesirables. I keep it beside my bed for the same reason.”
Asked if I could hold it, as I’d only ever touched hunting rifles before. “By all means,” replied
Ayrs, handing it over. Every hair on my body rose. That snug iron fellow has killed at least
once, Id wager my inheritance on it, if I still had any. “So you see”—Ayrs had a crooked laugh
—“I may be an elderly, blind cripple, but I still have a tooth or two left to bite with. One blind
man with a gun and v. little left to lose. Imagine the mess I could make!” Can’t decide if I only
imagined the menace in his voice.
Excellent news from Jansch, but don’t tell him I said so. Will post the three referred volumes to
you from Bruges next time I go—the postmaster here in Neerbeke has an inquisitive streak I
don’t trust. Take usual precautions. Remit my lucre to the First Bank of Belgium, Head Branch,
Bruges—Dhondt snapped his fingers and had the manager open me an account. Only one
Robert Frobisher on their lists, I’m quite sure.
Best news of all: started composing on my own account again.

Summer has taken a sensuous turn: Ayrs’s wife and I are lovers. Don’t alarm yourself! Only
in the carnal sense. One night last week she came to my room, locked the door behind her, and
without a word passing between us, disrobed. Don’t wish to brag, but her visit didn’t take me
by surprise. In fact, I’d left the door ajar for her. Really, Sixsmith, you should try to enjoy
lovemaking in total silence. All that ballyhooing transmutes into bliss if you’ll only seal your
When one unlocks a woman’s body, her box of confidences also spills. (You should try ’em
yourself one time, women I mean.) Might this be connected to their hopelessness at cards?
After the Act, I am happier just lying still, but Jocasta talked, impulsively, as if to bury our big
black secret under littler gray ones. Learnt Ayrs contracted his syphilis at a bordello in
Copenhagen in 1915, during an extended separation, and has not pleasured his wife since that
year; after Eva’s birth, the doctor told Jocasta she could never conceive another child. She is v.
selective about her occasional affairs but unapologetic about her right to conduct same. She
insisted that she still loves Ayrs. I grunted, dubiously. That love loves fidelity she riposted, is a
myth woven by men from their insecurities.Talked about Eva too. She worries that she was so busy instilling a sense of propriety into her
daughter, they never became friends, and now, it seems, that horse has bolted. Dozed through
these trivial tragedies, but shall be more careful around Danes in future and Danish bordellos in
J. wanted a second bout, as if to glue herself to me. Did not object. She has an equestrienne’s
body, more spring than you normally get in a mature woman, and more technique than many a
ten-shilling mount I’ve ridden. One suspects there stretches back a long line of youthful
stallions invited to forage in her manger. Indeed, just as I nodded off for the last time she said,
“Debussy once spent a week at Zedelghem, before the war. He slept in this very bed, if I’m not
mistaken.” A minor chord in her tone suggested she was with him. Not impossible. Anything
in a skirt, that’s what I heard about Claude, and he was a Frenchman.
When Lucille knocked in the morning with my shaving water, I was quite alone. J.’s
performance over breakfast was as nonchalant as my own, happy to note. Was even slightly
caustic with me when I spilt a blob of jam on the place mat, prompting VA. to reprimand her,
“Don’t be such a stickleback, Jocasta! Your pretty hands won’t have to scrub the stain out.”
Adultery is a tricky duet to pull off, Sixsmith—as in contract bridge, eschew partners clumsier
than oneself or one winds up in a ghastly mess.
Guilt? None. A cuckolder’s triumph? Not specially, no. Still rather miffed at Ayrs, if anything.
The other evening, the Dhondts came to dinner and Mrs. D. asked for some piano music to
help the food go down, so I played that “Angel of Mons” piece I wrote on holiday with you in
the Scilly Isles two summers ago, though disclaimed its authorship by saying “a friend” had
composed it. I’ve been rewriting it. It’s better and more fluid and subtle than those sherbety
Schubertian pastiches VA. spewed out in his twenties. J. and the Dhondts loved it so much
they insisted on an encore. Was only six bars in when VA. exercised a hitherto unknown veto.
“I’d advise your friend to master the Ancients before he frolics with the Moderns.” Sounds like
innocuous enough advice? However, he pronounced friend in a precise semitone that told me
he was quite aware of my friend’s true identity Perhaps he used the same ruse himself, at
Grieg’s in Oslo? “Without a thorough mastery of counterpoint and harmonics,” VA. puffed,
“this fellow’ll never amount to anything but a hawker of fatuous gimmickry. Tell your friend
that from me.” I fumed in silence. VA. told J. to put on a gramophone recording of his own
Sirocco Wind Quintet. She obeyed the truculent old bully. To console myself, I remembered
how J.’s body is under her crepe de chine summer dress, and how hungrily she slips into my
bed. V well, I shall gloat a little over my employer’s cuckold’s horns. Serves him right. An old
sick prig is still a prig.
Augustowski sent this enigmatic telegram after the performance in Cracow. To translate from
weren’t sure what to think until newspaper clippings followed, hot on the telegram’s heels,
translated by Augustowski on the back of a concert program. Well, our “Todtenvogel” has
become a cause célèbre! So far as we can see, the critics interpreted its disintegration of the
Wagnerian themes as a frontal assault on the German Republic. A band of nationalist
parliamentarians strong-armed the festival authorities into a fifth performance. The theater,
eyeing receipts, complied with pleasure. The German ambassador made an official complaint,
so a sixth was sold out within another twenty-four hours. The effect of all this is to raise the
value of Ayrs’s stock through the roof everywhere but Germany, where apparently, he is
denounced as a Jewish devil. National newspapers across the Continent have written to request
interviews. I have the pleasure of dispatching a polite but firm pro forma rejection to each. “I’m
too busy composing,” grumbles Ayrs. “If they want to know ‘what I mean’ they should listen
to my bloody music.” He’s thriving on the attention, though. Even Mrs. Willems admits, since my arrival the Master is invigorated.
Hostilities continue on the Eva front. Of concern is how she sniffs something rotten between
my father and me. She wonders, publicly, why I never receive letters from my family, or why I
don’t have some clothes of my own sent over. She asked if one of my sisters would like to be
her pen-friend. To win time I had to promise to put her proposal to ’em, and I might need you
to do another forgery Make it very good. The devious vixen is almost a female Me.
August in Belgium is blistering this year. The meadow is turning yellow, the gardener is
anxious about fires, farmers are worried about the harvest, but show me a placid farmer and I’ll
show you a sane conductor. Will seal this envelope now and walk to the village post office
through the woods behind the lake. It wouldn’t do to leave these pages lying around for a
certain seventeen-year-old snoop to come across.
The important matter. Yes, I will meet Otto Jansch in Bruges to hand over the illuminated
manuscripts in person, but you must broker all the arrangements. Don’t want Jansch knowing
whose hospitality I’m enjoying. Like all dealers, Jansch is a gluttonous, glabrous grasper, only
more so. He wouldn’t hesitate to try blackmail to lower our price—or even dispense with a
price altogether. Tell him I’ll expect payment on the nail in crisp banknotes, none of his funny
credit arrangements with me. Then I’ll forward a postal order to you, including the sum you
loaned me. This way, you won’t be incriminated if any monkey business takes place. I am
already disgraced and thus have no reputation to lose by blowing the whistle on him. Tell
Jansch that, too.

Your tedious letter from my father’s “solicitor” was an Ace of Diamonds. Bravo. Read it aloud
over breakfast—excited only passing interest. Saffron Walden postmark also a masterly touch.
Did you actually drag yourself away from your lab into the sunny Essex afternoon to post it
yourself? Ayrs invited our “Mr. Cummings” to see me at Zedelghem, but you’d written time
was v. tight, so Mrs. Crommelynck said Hendrick’ll drive me into town to sign the documents
there. Ayrs grumbled about losing a day’s work, but he’s only happy when he’s grumbling.
Hendrick and I set off this dewy morning down the same roads I cycled from Bruges half a
summertime ago. Wore a smart jacket of Ayrs’s—much of his wardrobe is gravitating into
mine, now my few items rescued from the Imperial’s grasp are beginning to wear out. The
Enfield was roped to the rear fender so I could honor my promise to return said bicycle to the good constable. Our vellum-bound loot I had camouflaged in MS paper, which everyone at
Zedelghem knows I am never without, and stowed out of casual sight in a mucky satchel I’ve
appropriated. Hendrick had the Cow-ley’s top down so there was too much wind for
conversation. Taciturn chap, as is appropriate to his station. Peculiar to admit it, but since I’ve
started servicing Mrs. Crommelynck I feel edgier with the husband’s valet than I do with the
husband. (Jocasta continues to bestow her favor on me, every third or fourth night, though
never when Eva is at home, which is v. wise. Anyway, one mustn’t gobble one’s birthday
chocolates all at once.) My unease stems from the probability that Hendrick knows. Oh, we
above the stairs like to congratulate ourselves on our cleverness, but there are no secrets to
those who strip the sheets. Not too worried. Don’t place unreasonable demands on the
servants, and Hendrick is canny enough to lay his bets on a strident mistress with many years
ahead of her, not on an invalid master of Ayrs’s prospects. Hendrick’s an odd one, really. Hard
to guess his tastes. Would make an excellent croupier.
He dropped me outside the Guildhall, untied the Enfield, and left me to run various errands and
pay his respects, he said, to an ailing great-aunt. Rode my two wheels through crowds of
sightseers, schoolchildren, and burghers and only got lost a few times. At the police station, the
musical inspector made a great fuss of me and sent out for coffee and pastries. He was
delighted my position with Ayrs has worked out so well. By the time I got away it was ten
o’clock and time for my appointment. Didn’t hurry. Good form to let tradesmen wait a little.
Jansch was propping up the bar of Le Royal and greeted me with an “Aha, as I live and
breathe, the Invisible Man, back by popular demand!” I swear, Sixsmith, that warty old
Shylock looks more repulsive every time I clap eyes on him. Has he got a magical portrait of
himself stashed in his attic, getting more beautiful by the year? Couldn’t fathom why he seemed
so pleased to see me. Looked around the lounge for tipped-off creditors—one beetly glare and I
would have bolted. Jansch read my mind. “So suspicious, Roberto? I’m hardly going to make
trouble for a naughty goose who lays such illuminated eggs, am I? Come now”—he indicated
the bar—“what’s your poison?”
Replied that sharing a building with Jansch, even such a large one, was poisonous enough, so
I’d rather get down to business straightaway He chuckled, clapped me on the shoulder, and led
me up to the room hed reserved for our transaction. Nobody followed us, but that didn’t
guarantee anything. Was now wishing I’d had you arrange a more public rendezvous, so Tam
Brewer’s thugs couldn’t clap a sack over my head, throw me in a trunk, and haul me back to
London. Got the books out of the satchel, and he got his pince-nez out of his jacket pocket.
Jansch examined ’em at a desk by the window. He tried to knock the price down, claiming the
condition of the volumes was more “fair” than “good.” Calmly, I wrapped the books up, put
’em in my satchel, and made the stingy Jew chase me down the corridor until he admitted the
volumes were indeed “good.” Let him woo me back to the room, where we counted the
banknotes, slowly, until the sum agreed was paid in full. Business over, he sighed, claimed I’d
beggared him, smiled that smile, and put his hairy paw on my knee. Said it was books I’d come
to sell. He asked why let business preclude pleasure? Surely a young buck abroad could find a
use for a little pocket money? Left Jansch asleep an hour later and his wallet starved. Proceeded
directly to the bank across the square and was seen to by the manager’s own secretary. Sweet
bird of solvency. As Pater is fond of saying, “One’s own sweat is one’s best reward!” (not that
he ever sweated in his sinecured pulpit overly much). Next stop was the city’s music shop,
Flagstad’s, where I bought a brick of MS paper to replace the missing bulk from my satchel for
benefit of watchful eyes. Coming out, I saw a pair of drab spats in a shoemaker’s window.
Went in, bought ’em. Saw a shagreen cigarette box in a tobacconist’s. Bought it.
Two hours remained to kill. Had a cold beer in a café, and another, and another, and smoked a
whole packet of delicious French cigarettes. The Jansch money is no dragon’s hoard, but God knows it feels like one. Next I found a backstreet church (steered clear of the tourist places to
avoid disgruntled book dealers) of candles, shadows, doleful martyrs, incense. Haven’t been to
church since the morning Pater cast me out. Street door kept banging shut. Wiry crones came,
lit candles, went. Padlock on the votive box was of the best. People knelt in prayer, some
moving their lips. Envy ’em, really I do. I envy God, too, privy to their secrets. Faith, the least
exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I’ve stepped through its wideopen doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again. Did my best to think beatific
thoughts, but my mind kept running its fingers over Jocasta. Even the stained-glass saints and
martyrs were mildly arousing. Don’t suppose such thoughts get me closer to Heaven. In the
end, it was a Bach motet that shooed me away—choristers weren’t damnably bad, but the
organist’s only hope for salvation was a bullet through the brain. Told him so, too—tact and
restraint all well and good in small talk, but one mustn’t beat around any bush where music is
At a prim and proper public garden named Minnewater Park, courting couples ambled arm in
arm between willows, banksia roses, and chaperones. Blind, emaciated fiddler performed for
coins. Now he could play. Requested “Bonsoir, Paris!” and he performed with such élan I
pressed a crisp five-franc note into his hand. He removed his dark glasses, checked the
watermark, invoked his pet saint’s name, gathered his coppers, and scarpered through the
flower beds, laughing like a madcap. Whoever opined “Money can’t buy you happiness”
obviously had far too much of the stuff.
Sat down on an iron bench. One o’clock bells chimed, nearby, far off, interspersed. Clerks
crawled out from the law and merchants’ offices to eat sandwiches in the park and feel the
green breeze. Was wondering whether to be late for Hendrick when guess who waltzed into the
park, unchaperoned, in the company of a dandified stick insect of a man twice her age, a vulgar
gold wedding ring on his finger as bold as brass. Right first time. Eva. Hid behind a newspaper
a clerk had left on the bench. Eva wasn’t in physical contact with her companion, but they
strolled right by me with an air of easy intimacy that she never, ever wears at Zedelghem. I
jumped to the obvious conclusion.
Eva was stacking her chips on a doubtful card. He crowed, in order to be overheard by
strangers and impress them. “A time is one’s own, Eva, when oneself and one’s peers take the
same things for granted, without thinking about it. Likewise, a man is ruined when the times
change but he does not. Permit me to add, empires fall for the same reason.” This jackdaw
philosophizer flummoxed me. A girl of E.’s looks could do better for herself, surely? E.’s
behavior likewise flummoxed me. In broad daylight, in her own city! Does she want to ruin
herself? Is she one of these libertarian suffragette Rossetti types? I followed the couple at a safe
distance to a town house on a well-heeled road. The man gave the street a shifty once-over
before putting his key in the latch. I ducked into a mews. Picture Frobisher rubbing his hands
with glee!
Eva returned as usual late on Friday afternoon. In the vestibule between her room and the door
to the stables is an oaken throne. In this I planted myself. Unfortunately I became lost in the
chords in the chroma of old glass and didn’t notice E., riding crop in her hand, not even aware
she was being ambushed. “S’agit-il d’un guet-apens? Si vous voulez discuter avec moi d’un
problème personnel, vous pourriez me prévenir?”
Being caught by surprise like that made me speak my thought aloud. Eva caught the word.
“Sneak, you call me? ‘Une moucharde’? Ce n’est pas un mot aimable, Mr. Frobisher. Si vous
dites que je suis une moucharde, vous allez nuire à ma réputation. Et si vous nuisez à ma
réputation, eh bien, il faudra que je ruine la vôtre!”
Belatedly, I opened fire. Yes, her reputation was precisely what I had to warn her about. If
even a visiting foreigner to Bruges had seen her consorting in Minnewater Park during school hours with a scrofulous toad, it was only a matter of time before all the ru-mormongers in the
city had turned the name of Crommelynck-Ayrs to Mudd!
One moment I expected a slap, the next, she reddened and lowered her face. Meekly, she
inquired, Avez-vous dit à ma mère ce que vous avez vu?” I replied that, no, I had not told
anyone, yet. E. took careful aim: “Stupid of you, Monsieur Frobisher, because Mama could
have told you that mysterious ‘consort’ was Monsieur van de Velde, the gentleman with whose
family I lodge during my school week. His father owns the largest munitions factory in
Belgium, and he is a respectable family man. Wednesday was a half holiday so Monsieur van
de Velde was kind enough to accompany me from his office back to his house. His own
daughters had a choir rehearsal to attend. The school does not like its girls to walk out alone,
even during daylight. Sneaks live in parks, you see, dirty-minded sneaks, waiting to damage a
girl’s reputation, or perhaps prowling for opportunities to blackmail her.”
Bluff or backfire? I hedged my bets. “Blackmail? I have three sisters of my own, and I was
concerned for your reputation! That is all.”
She relished her advantage. “Ah oui? Comme c’est délicat de votre part! Tell me, Mr.
Frobisher, what exactly did you think Monsieur van de Velde was going to do to me? Were
you frightfully jealous?”
Her awful directness—for a girl—quite knocked the bails off my wicket. “I am relieved that
this simple misunderstanding has been cleared up”—I chose my most insincere smile—“and
offer my sincerest apologies.”
“I accept your sincerest apologies in the precise same spirit they are offered.” E. walked off to
the stables, her whip swishing the air like a lioness’s tail. Went off to the music room to forget
my dismal performance in some devilish Liszt. Can normally rattle off an excellent La
Prédication aux Oiseaux, but not last Friday. Thank God E.’s leaving for Switzerland
tomorrow. If she ever found out about her mother’s nighttime visits—well, doesn’t bear
thinking about. Why is it I never met a boy I couldn’t twist round my finger (not only my
finger) but the women of Zedelghem seem to best me every time?

Sitting at my escritoire in my dressing gown. The church bell chimes five. Another thirsty
dawn. My candle is burnt away A tiring night turned inside out. J. came to my bed at midnight,
and during our athletics, my door was barged. Farcical horror! Thank God J. had locked it on
her way in. The doorknob rattled, insistent knocking began. Fear can clear the mind as well as
cloud it, and remembering my Don Juan, I hid J. in a nest of coverlets and sheets in my
sagging bed and left the curtain half open to show I had nothing to hide. I fumbled across the
room, not believing this was happening to me, deliberately knocking into things to buy time,
and reaching the door, called out, “What in hell is the matter? Are we on fire?”“Open up, Robert!” Ayrs! You can imagine, I was ready to duck bullets. Desperate, I asked
what time it was, just to win another moment.
“Who cares? I don’t know! I’ve got a melody, boy, for violin, it’s a gift, and it won’t let me
sleep, so I need you to take it down, now!”
Could I trust him? “Can’t it wait until the morning?”
“No, it bloody can’t, Frobisher! I might lose it!”
Shouldn’t we go to the music room?
“It’ll wake up the house and, no, every note is in place, in my head!”
So I told him to wait while I lit a candle. Unlocked my door, and there stood Ayrs, a cane in
each hand, mummified in his moonlit nightshirt. Hendrick stood behind him, silent and
watchful as an Indian totem. “Make way, make way!” Ayrs pushed past me. “Find a pen, grab
some blank score paper, turn on your lamp, quickly. Why the deuce do you lock your door if
you sleep with the windows open? The Prussians are gone, the ghosts’ll just drift through the
door.” Garbled some balderdash about not being able to fall asleep in an unlocked room, but he
wasn’t listening. “Have you got manuscript paper in here or should I have Hendrick go and get
Relief that VA. hadn’t come to catch me tupping his wife made his imposition seem less
preposterous than it actually was, so fine, I said, yes, I have paper, I have pens, let’s start.
Ayrs’s sight was too poor to see anything suspicious in the foothills of my bed, but Hendrick
still posed a possible danger. One should avoid relying on servants’ discretion. After Hendrick
had helped his master to a chair and wrapped a rug round his shoulders, I told him I’d ring for
him when we were done. Ayrs didn’t contradict me—he was already humming. A
conspiratorial flicker in H.’s eyes? Room too dim to be sure. The servant gave a nearimperceptible bow and glided away as if on well-oiled coasters, softly shutting the door behind
Splashed a little water on my face at the washbowl and sat opposite Ayrs, worrying J. might
forget the creaking floorboards and try to tiptoe out.
Ayrs hummed his sonata, bar by bar, then named his notes. The oddity of the miniature soon
absorbed me, despite the circumstances. It’s a seesawing, cyclical, crystalline thing. He finished
after the ninety-sixth bar and told me to mark the MS triste. Then he asked me, “So what d’you
“Not sure,” I told him. “It’s not at all like you. Not much like anyone. But it hypnotizes.”
Ayrs was now slumped, à la a Pre-Raphaelite oil painting entitled Behold the Sated Muse
Discards Her Puppet. Birdsong foamed in the hour-before-dawn garden. Thought about J.’s
curves in the bed, just a few yards away, even felt a dangerous throb of impatience for her.
VA. was unsure of himself for once. “I dreamt of a … nightmarish café, brilliantly lit, but
underground, with no way out. I’d been dead a long, long time. The waitresses all had the same
face. The food was soap, the only drink was cups of lather. The music in the café was”—he
wagged an exhausted finger at the MS—“this.”
Rang for H. Wanted Ayrs out of my room before daylight found his wife in my bed. After a
minute H. knocked. Ayrs got to his feet and limped over—he hates anyone seeing him assisted.
“Good work, Frobisher.” His voice found me from down the corridor. I shut the door and
breathed that big sigh of relief. Climbed back to bed, where my swampy-sheeted alligator sank
her little teeth into her young prey.
Wed begun a luxuriant farewell kiss when, damn me, the door creaked opened again.
“Something else, Frobisher!” Mother of All Profanities, I hadn’t locked the door! Ayrs drifted
bedward like the wreck of the Hesperus. J. slid back under the sheets while I made
disheveling, surprised noises. Thank God, Hendrick was waiting outside—accident or tact? VA. found the end of my bed and sat there, just inches from the bump that was J. If J. sneezed
or coughed now, even blind old Ayrs would catch on. “A tricky subject, so I’ll just spit it out.
Jocasta. She isn’t a very faithful woman. Maritally, I mean. Friends hint at her indiscretions,
enemies inform me of affairs. Has she ever … toward you … y know my meaning?”
Let my voice stiffen, masterfully “No, sir, I don’t believe I do know your meaning.”
“Spare me your bashfulness, boy!” Ayrs leant nearer. “Has my wife ever made advances? I
have a right to know!”
Avoided a nervous giggle, by a whisker. “I find your question distasteful in the extreme.”
Jocasta’s breath dampened my thigh. She must have been roasting alive under the covers. “I
wouldn’t call any ‘friend’ who spread such muck around by that name. In Mrs.
Crommelynck’s case, frankly, I find the notion as unthinkable as it is unpalatable. If, if, through
some, I don’t know, nervous collapse, she were to behave so inappropriately, well, to be
honest, Ayrs, I’d probably ask for Dhondt’s advice, or speak to Dr. Egret.” Sophistry makes a
fine smoke screen.
“So you’re not going to give me a one-word answer?”
“You shall have a two-word answer. ‘Emphatically no!’ And I very much hope the subject is
now closed.”
Ayrs let long moments fall away “You’re young, Frobisher, you’re rich, you’ve got a brain,
and by all accounts you’re not wholly
repugnant. I’m not sure why you stay on here.”
Good. He was getting mawkish. “You’re my Verlaine.” “Am I, young Rimbaud? Then where
is your Saison en Enfer?” “In sketches, in my skull, in my gut, Ayrs. In my future.” Couldn’t
say if Ayrs felt humor, pity nostalgia, or scorn. He left.
Locked the door and climbed into bed for the third time that night.
Bedroom farce, when it actually happens, is intensely sad. Jocasta
seemed angry with me. “What?” I hissed. “My husband loves you,” said the wife, dressing.
Zedelghem’s a-stirring. Plumbing makes noises like elderly aunts. Been thinking of my
grandfather, whose wayward brilliance skipped my father’s generation. Once, he showed me
an aquatint of a certain Siamese temple. Don’t recall its name, but ever since a disciple of the
Buddha preached on the spot centuries ago, every bandit king, tyrant, and monarch of that
kingdom has enhanced it with marble towers, scented arboretums, gold-leafed domes, lavished
murals on its vaulted ceilings, set emeralds into the eyes of its statuettes. When the temple
finally equals its counterpart in the Pure Land, so the story goes, that day humanity shall have
fulfilled its purpose, and Time itself shall come to an end.
To men like Ayrs, it occurs to me, this temple is civilization. The masses, slaves, peasants, and
foot soldiers exist in the cracks of its flagstones, ignorant even of their ignorance. Not so the
great statesmen, scientists, artists, and most of all, the composers of the age, any age, who are
civilization’s architects, masons, and priests. Ayrs sees our role is to make civilization ever
more resplendent. My employer’s profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that
inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to and say, “Look, there is
Vyvyan Ayrs!”
How vulgar, this hankering after immortality how vain, how false. Composers are merely
scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one
didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.

14.TH— ix—1931
Sir Edward Elgar came to tea this afternoon. Even you’ve heard of him, you ignoramus. Now,
usually, if one asks Ayrs what he thinks of English music he’ll say, “What English music?
There is none! Not since Purcell!” and sulk all day, as if the Reformation were one’s own
doing. This hostility was forgotten in a trice when Sir Edward telephoned from his hotel in
Bruges this morning, wondering if Ayrs might be able to spare him an hour or two. Ayrs made
a show of curmudgeonliness, but I could tell by the way he badgered Mrs. Willems about the
arrangements for tea, he was pleased as the cat who got the cream. Our celebrated guest arrived
at half past two, dressed in a dark green Inverness cape despite the clement weather. The man’s
state of health isn’t much better than VA.’s. J. & I welcomed him on the steps of Zedelghem.
“So you’re Vyv’s new pair of eyes, are you?” he said to me, as we shook hands. Said I’d seen
him conduct a dozen times at the festival, which pleased him. Guided the composer into the
Scarlet Room, where Ayrs was waiting. They greeted each other warmly, but as if wary of
bruises. Elgar’s sciatic pain bothers him greatly, and even on good days, VA. looks pretty
frightful at first sight, still worse at the second. Tea was served, and they talked shop, mostly
ignoring J. & me, but it was fascinating to be a fly on the wall. Sir E. glanced at us now and
then to make sure he was not wearing out his host. “Not at all.” We smiled back. They fenced
over such topics as saxophones in orchestras, whether Webern is Fraudster or Messiah, the
patronage and politics of music. Sir E. announced he is at work on a Third Symphony after a
long hibernation:—he even played us sketches of a molto maestoso and an allegretto on the
upright. Ayrs most eager to prove that he isn’t ready for his coffin either, and had me run
through some recently completed piano sketches—rather lovely Several dead bottles of
Trappist beer later, I asked Elgar about the Pomp and Circumstance marches. “Oh, I needed
the money, dear boy But don’t tell anyone. The King might want my baronetcy back.” Ayrs
went into laughter spasms at this! “I always say, Ted, to get the crowd to cry Hosanna, you
must first ride into town on an ass. Backwards, ideally, whilst telling the masses the tall stories
they want to hear.”
Sir E. had heard about “Todtenvogel”’s reception in Cracow (all London has, it would seem),
so VA. sent me off to fetch a score. Back in the Scarlet Room, our guest took our death-bird to
the window seat and read it with the aid of a monocle while Ayrs and I pretended to busy
ourselves. “A man at our time of life, Ayrs”— E. spoke at last—“has no right to such daring
ideas. Where are you getting ’em from?”
VA. puffed up like a smug hornyback. “I suppose I’ve won a rearguard action or two in my
war against decrepitude. My boy Robert here is proving a valuable aide-de-camp.”Aide-de-camp? I’m his bloody general and he’s the fat old Turk reigning on the memory of
faded glories! Smiled sweetly as I could (as if the roof over my head depended on it.
Moreover, Sir E. might be useful one day so it won’t do to create an obstreperous impression).
During tea, Elgar contrasted my position at Zedelghem favorably with his first job as a musical
director at a lunatic asylum in Worcestershire. “Excellent prep for conducting the London
Philharmonic, what?” quipped VA. We laughed and I half-forgave the ratty old selfish crank
for being himself. Put another log or two in the hearth. In the smoky firelight the two old men
nodded off like a pair of ancient kings passing the aeons in their tumuli. Made a musical
notation of their snores. Elgar is to be played by a bass tuba, Ayrs a bassoon. I’ll do the same
with Fred Delius and Trevor Mackerras and publish ’em all together in a work entitled The
Backstreet Museum of Stuffed Edwardians.
Three days later
Just back from a lento walk with VA. down the Monk’s Walk to the gatekeeper’s lodge. I
pushed his chair. Landscape v. atmospheric this evening; autumn leaves gusted around in
urgent spirals, as if VA. was the sorcerer and I his apprentice. Poplars’ long shadows barred
the mown meadow. Ayrs wanted to unveil his concepts for a final, symphonic major work, to
be named Eternal Recurrence in honor of his beloved Nietzsche. Some music will be drawn
from an abortive opera based on The Island of Doctor Moreau, whose Viennese production
was canceled by the war, some music VA. believes will “come” to him, and its backbone will
be the “dream music” piece that he dictated in my room that hairy night last month, I wrote to
you about that. VA. wants four movements, a female choir, and a large ensemble heavy in
Ayrsesque woodwind. Truly, a behemoth of the deeps. Wants my services for another half
year. Said I’d think about it. He said he’d up my salary, both vulgar and crafty of him.
Repeated, I needed time. VA. most upset I didn’t give him a breathy “Yes!” on the spot—but I
want the old bugger to admit to himself that he needs me more than I him.
J. growing v. tiresome. After our lovemaking, she spreads over my bed like a mooing mooncalf and demands to know about other women whose strings I’ve quivered. Now she’s teased names out of me, she says things like “Oh, I suppose Frederica taught you that?” (She plays
with that birthmark in the hollow of my shoulder, the one you said resembles a comet—can’t
abide the woman dabbling with my skin.) J. initiates petty rows in order to undergo tedious
reconciliations and, worryingly has started to let our moonlight dramas slip into our daylight
lives. Ayrs can’t see further than Eternal Recurrence, but Eva is due back in ten days, and that
hawkeyed creature will sniff out a decomposing secret in a jiffy.
J. thinks our arrangement lets her fasten my future more tightly to Zedelghem—she says, half
playful, half darkly, she’s not going to let me “abandon” either her or her husband, not in
“their” hour of need. The devil, Sixsmith, is in the pronouns. Worst of all, she’s started to use
the L-word on me, and wants to hear it back. What’s wrong with the woman? She’s nearly
twice my age! What’s she after? Assured her I’ve never loved anyone except myself and have
no intention of starting now, especially with another man’s wife, and especially when that man
could poison my name in European musical society by writing half a dozen letters. So, of
course, the female plies her customary ploys, sobs in my pillow, accuses me of “using” her. I
agree, of course I’ve “used” her; just as she’s “used” me too. That’s the arrangement. If she’s
no longer happy with it, she’s not my prisoner. So off she storms to pout for a couple of days
and nights until the old ewe gets hungry for a young ram, then she’s back, calling me her
darling boy, thanking me for “giving Vyvyan his music back,” and the stupid cycle begins all
over again. I wonder if she’s resorted to Hendrick in the past. Wouldn’t put anything past the
woman. If one of Renwick’s Austrian doctors opened up her head, a whole beehive of
neuroses would swarm out. Had I known she was this unstable, I’d never have let her in my
bed that first night. There’s a joylessness in her lovemaking. No, a savagery.
Have agreed to VA.’s proposal that I stay on here until next summer, at least. No cosmic
resonance entered my decision—just artistic advantage, financial practicalities, and because J.
might have some sort of collapse if I went. The consequences of that would not come out in the
Later, same day
Gardener made a bonfire of fallen leaves—just came in from it. The heat on one’s face and
hands, the sad smoke, the crackling and wheezing fire. Reminds me of the groundsman’s hut at
Gresham. Anyway, got a gorgeous passage from the fire—percussion for crackling, alto
bassoon for the wood, and a restless flute for the flames. Finished transcribing it this very
minute. Air in the château clammy like laundry that won’t dry. Door-banging drafts down the
passageways. Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don’t
remember summer even saying good-bye.
HALF-LIVESthe first luisa rey
Rufus Sixsmith leans over the balcony and estimates his body’s velocity when it hits the
sidewalk and lays his dilemmas to rest. A telephone rings in the unlit room. Sixsmith dares not
answer. Disco music booms from the next apartment, where a party is in full swing, and
Sixsmith feels older than his sixty-six years. Smog obscures the stars, but north and south
along the coastal strip, Buenas Yerbas’s billion lights simmer. West, the Pacific eternity East,
our denuded, heroic, pernicious, enshrined, thirsty berserk-ing American continent.
A young woman emerges from the next-door party and leans over the neighboring balcony.
Her hair is shorn, her violet dress is elegant, but she looks incurably sad and alone. Propose a
suicide pact, why don’t you? Sixsmith isn’t serious, and he isn’t going to jump either, not if an
ember of humor still glows. Besides, a quiet accident is precisely what Grimaldi, Napier, and
those sharp-suited hoodlums are praying for. Sixsmith shuffles inside and pours himself
another generous vermouth from his absent host’s minibar, dips his hands in the icebox, then
wipes his face. Go out somewhere and phone Megan, she’s your only friend left. He knows he
won’t. You can’t drag her into this lethal mess. The disco thump pulses in his temples, but it’s
a borrowed apartment and he judges it unwise to complain. Buenas Yerbas isn’t Cambridge.
Anyway, you’re in hiding. The breeze slams the balcony door, and in fear Sixsmith spills half
his vermouth. No, you old fool, it wasn’t a gunshot.
He mops up the spillage with a kitchen towel, turns on the TV with the sound down low, and
trawls the channels for M*A*S*H. It’s on somewhere. Just have to keep looking.
Luisa Rey hears a clunk from the neighboring balcony “Hello?” Nobody. Her stomach warns
her to set down her tonic water. It was the bathroom you needed, not fresh air, but she can’t
face weaving back through the party and, anyway, there’s no time—down the side of the
building she heaves: once, twice, a vision of greasy chicken, and a third time. That, she wipes
her eyes, is the third foulest thing you’ve ever done. She slooshes her mouth out, spits residue
into a flowerpot behind a screen. Luisa dabs her lips with a tissue and finds a mint in her
handbag. Go home and just dream up your crappy three hundred words for once. People only
look at the pictures, anyhow.A man too old for his leather trousers, bare torso, and zebra waistcoat steps onto the balcony.
“Luisaaa!” A crafted golden beard and a moonstone-and-jade ankh around his neck. “Hiya!
Come out for a little stargazing, huh? Dig. Bix brought eight ounces of snow with him, man.
One wild cat. Hey, did I say in the interview? I’m trying on the name Ganja at the moment.
Maharaj Aja says Richard is outa sync with my Iovedic Self.”
“My guru, Luisaaa, my guru! He’s on his last reincarnation before—” Richard’s fingers go
puff! Nirvanawards. “Come to an audience. His waiting list normally takes, like, forever, but
jade-ankh disciples get personal audiences on the same afternoon. Like, why go through college
and shit when Maharaj Aja can, like, teach you everything about … It.” He frames the moon in
his fingers. “Words are so … uptight… Space … it’s so … y know, like, total. Smoke some
weed? Acapulco Gold. Got it off of Bix.” He edges nearer. “Say, Lu, let’s get high after the
party Alone together, my place, dig? You could get a very exclusive interview. I may even
write you a song and put it on my next LP.”
“I’ll pass.”
The minor-league rock musician narrows his eyes. “Unlucky time of the month, huh? How’s
next week? I thought all you media chicks are on the Pill, like, forever.”
“Does Bix sell you your pickup lines, too?”
He sniggers. “Hey, has that cat been telling you things?”
“Richard, just so there’s no uncertainty I’d rather jump off this balcony than sleep with you,
any time of any month. I really
“Whoah!” His hand jerks back as if stung. “Pick-ky! Who d’you think you are, like, Joni
fucking Mitchell? You’re only a fucking gossip columnist in a magazine that like no one ever
The elevator doors close just as Luisa Rey reaches them, but the unseen occupant jams them
with his cane. “Thank you,” says Luisa to the old man. “Glad the age of chivalry isn’t totally
He gives a grave nod.
Luisa thinks, He looks like he’s been given a week to live. She presses G. The ancient elevator
begins its descent. A leisurely needle counts off the stories. Its motor whines, its cables grind,
but between the tenth and ninth stories a gatta-gatta-gatta detonates then dies with a phzzz-zzzzz-z. Luisa and Sixsmith thump to the floor. The light stutters on and off before settling on a
buzzing sepia.
“You okay? Can you get up?”
The sprawled old man recovers himself a little. “No bones broken, I think, but I’ll stay seated,
thank you.” His old-school English accent reminds Luisa of the tiger in The Jungle Book. “The
power might restart suddenly.”
“Christ,” mutters Luisa. “A power outage. Perfect end to a perfect day.” She presses the
emergency button. Nothing. She presses the intercom button and hollers: “Hey! Anyone
there?” Static hiss. “We have a situation here! Can anyone hear us?”
Luisa and the old man regard each other, sideways, listening.
No reply. Just vague submarine noises.Luisa inspects the ceiling. “Got to be an access hatch …” There isn’t. She peels up the carpet—
a steel floor. “Only in movies, I guess.”
“Are you still glad,” asks the old man, “the age of chivalry isn’t dead?”
Luisa manages a smile, just. “We might be here some time. Last month’s brownout lasted
seven hours.” Well, at least I’m not confined with a psychopath, a claustrophobe, or Richard
Rufus Sixsmith sits propped in a corner sixty minutes later, dabbing his forehead with his
handkerchief. “I subscribed to Illustrated Planet in 1967 to read your father’s dispatches from
Vietnam. Lester Rey was one of only four or five journalists who grasped the war from the
Asian perspective. I’m fascinated to hear how a policeman became one of the best
correspondents of his generation.”
“You asked for it.” The story is polished with each retelling. “Dad joined the BYPD just weeks
before Pearl Harbor, which is why he spent the war here and not in the Pacific like his brother
Howie, who got blown to pieces by a Japanese land mine playing beach volleyball in the
Solomons. Pretty soon, it became apparent Dad was a Tenth Precinct case, and that’s where he
wound up. There’s such a precinct in every city in the country—a sort of pen where they
transfer all the straight cops who won’t go on the take and who won’t turn a blind eye. So
anyway, on V-J night, Buenas Yerbas was one citywide party and you can imagine, the police
were stretched thin. Dad got a call reporting looting down on Sil-vaplana Wharf, a sort of noman’s-land between Tenth Precinct, the BY Port Authority and Spinoza Precinct. Dad and his
partner, a man named Nat Wakefield, drove down to take a look. They park between a pair of
cargo containers, kill the engine, proceed on foot, and see maybe two dozen men loading crates
from a warehouse into an armored truck. The light was dim, but the men sure weren’t
dockworkers and they weren’t in military uniform. Wake-field tells Dad to go and radio for
backup. Just as Dad gets to the radio, a call comes through saying the original order to
investigate looting has been countermanded. Dad reports what he’d seen, but the order is
repeated, so Dad runs back to the warehouse just in time to see his partner accept a light from
one of the men and get shot six times in the back. Dad somehow keeps his nerve, sprints back
to his squad car, and manages to radio out a Code 8 — a Mayday—before his car shivers with
bullets. He’s surrounded on all sides except the dockside, so over the edge he dives, into a
cocktail of diesel, trash, sewage, and sea. He swims underneath the quay—in those days
Silvaplana Wharf was a steel structure like a giant boardwalk, not the concrete peninsula it is
today—and hauls himself up a service ladder, soaked, one shoe missing, with his nonfunctioning revolver. All he can do is observe the men, who are just finishing up when a
couple of Spinoza Precinct squad cars arrive on the scene. Before Dad can circle around the
yard to warn the officers, a hopelessly uneven gunfight breaks out—the gunmen pepper the
two squad cars with submachine guns. The truck starts up, the gunmen jump aboard, they pull
out of the yard and lob a couple of hand grenades from the back. Whether they were intended
to maim or just to discourage heroics, who knows? but one caught Dad and made a human
pincushion of him. He woke up two days later in the hospital minus his left eye. The papers
described the incident as an opportunistic raid by a gang of thieves who got lucky. The Tenth
Precinct men reckoned a syndicate who’d been siphoning off arms throughout the war decided
to shift their stock, now that the war was over and accounting would get tightened up. There was pressure for a wider investigation into the Silvaplana Shootings—three dead cops meant
something in 1945—but the mayor’s office blocked it. Draw your own conclusions. Dad did,
and they jaded his faith in law enforcement. By the time he was out of the hospital eight months
later, he’d completed a correspondence course in journalism.” “Good grief,” says Sixsmith.
“The rest you may know. Covered Korea for Illustrated Planet, then became West Coast
Herald’s Latin America man. He was in Vietnam for the battle of Ap Bac and stayed based in
Saigon until his first collapse back in March. It’s a miracle my parents’ marriage lasted the
years it did—y know, the longest I spent with him was April to July this year, in the hospice.”
Luisa is quiet. “I miss him, Rufus, chronically I keep forgetting he’s dead. I keep thinking he’s
away on assignment, somewhere, and he’ll be flying in any day soon.”
“He must have been proud of you, following in his footsteps.”
“Oh, Luisa Rey is no Lester Rey I wasted years being rebellious and liberated, posing as a poet
and working in a bookstore on En-gels Street. My posturing convinced no one, my poetry was
‘so vacuous it isn’t even bad’—so said Lawrence Ferlinghetti—and the bookstore went bust.
So I’m still only a columnist.” Luisa rubs her tired eyes, thinking of Rchard Ganga’s parting
shot. “No award-winning copy from war zones. I had high hopes when I moved to Spyglass,
but simpering gossip on celebrity parties is the closest I’ve gotten so far to Dad’s vocation.”
“Ah, but is it well-written simpering gossip?”
“Oh, it’s excellently written simpering gossip.”
“Then don’t bemoan your misspent life quite yet. Forgive me for flaunting my experience, but
you have no conception of what a misspent life constitutes.”
“Hitchcock loves the limelight,” says Luisa, her bladder now growing uncomfortable, “but
hates interviews. He didn’t answer my questions because he didn’t really hear them. His best
works, he said, are roller coasters that scare the riders out of their wits but let them off at the
end giggling and eager for another ride. I put it to the great man, the key to fictitious terror is
partition or containment: so long as the Bates Motel is sealed off from our world, we want to
peer in, like at a scorpion enclosure. But a film that shows the world is a Bates Motel, well,
that’s … the stuff of Buchenwald, dystopia, depression. We’ll dip our toes in a predatory,
amoral, godless universe—but only our toes. Hitchcock’s response was”—Luisa does an
above-average impersonation—“ ‘I’m a director in Hollywood, young lady, not an Oracle at
Delphi.’ I asked why Buenas Yerbas had never featured in his films. Hitchcock answered,
‘This town marries the worst of San Francisco with the worst of Los Angeles. Buenas Yerbas
is a city of nowhere.’ He spoke in bons mots like that, not to you, but into the ear of posterity
for dinner-party guests of the future to say, ‘That’s one of Hitchcock’s, you know.’ ”
Sixsmith wrings sweat from his handkerchief. “I saw Charade with my niece at an art-house
cinema last year. Was that Hitchcock? She strong-arms me into seeing these things, to prevent
me from growing ‘square.’ I rather enjoyed it, but my niece said Audrey Hepburn was a
‘bubblehead.’ Delicious word.”
“Charade’s the one where the plot swings on the stamps?”
“A contrived puzzle, yes, but all thrillers would wither without contrivance. Hitchcock’s
Buenas Yerbas remark puts me in mind of John F. Kennedy’s observation about New York.
Do you know it? ‘Most cities are nouns, but New York is a verb’ What might Buenas Yerbas
be, I wonder?”“A string of adjectives and conjunctions?”
“Or an expletive?”
“Megan, my treasured niece.” Rufus Sixsmith shows Luisa a photograph of a bronzed young
woman and a fitter, healthier self taken at a sunny marina. The photographer said something
funny just before the shutter clicked. Their legs dangle over the stern of a small yacht named
Starfish. “That’s my old tub, a relic from more dynamic days.”
Luisa makes polite noises about not being old.
“Truly. If I went on a serious voyage now I’d need to hire a small crew. I still spend a lot of
weekends on her, pottering about the marina and doing a little thinking, a little work. Megan
likes the sea, too. She’s a born physicist with a better head for mathematics than I ever had,
rather to her mother’s chagrin. My brother didn’t marry Megan’s mother for her brain, I’m
sorry to say She buys into feng shui or I Ching or whatever instant-enlightenment mumbo
jumbo is top of the charts. But Megan possesses a superb mind. She spent a year of her Ph.D.
at my old college at Cambridge. A woman, at Caius! Now she’s finishing her radioastronomy
research at the big dishes on Hawaii. While her mother and her stepfather crisp themselves to
toast on the beach in the name of Leisure, Megan and I knock around equations in the bar.”
“Any children of your own, Rufus?”
“I’ve been married to science all my life.” Sixsmith changes the subject. “A hypothetical
question, Miss Rey What price would you pay, as a journalist I mean, to protect a source?”
Luisa doesn’t consider the question. “If I believed in the issue? Any.”
“Prison, for example, for contempt of court?”
“If it came to it, yes.”
“Would you be prepared to … compromise your own safety?”
“Well …” Luisa does consider this. “I … guess I’d have to.”
“Have to? How so?”
“My father braved booby-trapped marshes and the wrath of generals for the sake of his
journalistic integrity What kind of a mockery of his life would it be if his daughter bailed when
things got a little tough?”
Tell her. Sixsmith opens his mouth to tell her everything—the whitewashing at Seaboard, the
blackmailing, the corruption—but without warning the elevator lurches, rumbles, and resumes
its descent. Its occupants squint in the restored light, and Sixsmith finds his resolve has
crumbled away. The needle swings round to G.
The air in the lobby feels as fresh as mountain water.
“I’ll telephone you, Miss Rey,” says Sixsmith, as Luisa hands him his stick, “soon.” Will I
break this promise or keep it? “Do you know?” he says. “I feel I’ve known you for years, not
ninety minutes.”
The flat world is curved in the boy’s eye. Javier Gomez leafs through a stamp album under an Anglepoise lamp. A team of huskies barks on an Alaskan stamp, a Hawaiian nene honks and
waddles on a fifty-cents special edition, a paddle steamer churns up an inky Congo. A key
turns in the lock, and Luisa Rey stumbles in, kicking off her shoes in the kitchenette. She is
exasperated to find him here. “Javier!”
“Oh, hi.”
“Don’t ‘Oh, hi’ me. You promised not to jump across the balconies ever again! Suppose
someone reports a burglar to the cops? Suppose you slipped and fell?”
“Then just give me a key.”
Luisa strangles an invisible neck. “I can’t rest easy knowing an eleven-year-old can waltz into
my living space whenever …” your mom’s out all night, Luisa replaces with “… there’s a slow
night on TV.”
“So why leave the bathroom window open?”
“Because if there’s one thing worse than you jumping the gap once, it’d be you jumping the
gap again when you couldn’t get in.”
“I’ll be eleven in January.”
“No key”
“Friends give each other keys.”
“Not when one is twenty-six and the other is still in the fifth grade.”
“So why are you back so late? Meet anyone interesting?”
Luisa glares. “Trapped by the brownout in an elevator. None of your business, anyhow,
mister.” She switches on the main light and flinches when she sees the mean red welt on
Javier’s face. “What the—what happened?”
The boy glances at the apartment wall, then returns to his stamps.
Javier shakes his head, folds a tiny paper strip, and licks both sides. “That Clark guy came
back. Mom’s working the graveyard shift at the hotel all this week, and he’s waiting for her.
He asked me stuff about Wolfman, and I told him it wasn’t any of his business.” Javier
attaches the hinge to the stamp. “It doesn’t hurt. I already dabbed stuff on it.” Luisa’s hand is
already on the telephone. “Don’t phone Mom! She’ll rush back, there’ll be a massive fight, and
the hotel’ll fire her like last time and the time before.” Luisa considers this, replaces the
receiver, and starts for the door. “Don’t go around there! He’s sick in the head! He’ll get angry
and wreck our stuff, then we’ll probably get evicted or something! Please.” Luisa looks away.
She takes a deep breath. “Cocoa?” “Yes, please.” The boy is determined not to cry, but his jaw
aches with the effort. He wipes his eyes on his wrists. “Luisa?” “Yes, Javi, you’re sleeping on
my sofa tonight, it’s okay”
Dom Grelsch’s office is a study in ordered chaos. The view across Third Avenue shows a wall
of offices much like his own. An Incredible Hulk punching bag hangs from a metal gallows in
the corner. The editor-in-chief of Spyglass magazine declares the Monday A.M. features
meeting open by stabbing a stubby digit at Roland Jakes, a grizzled, prunelike man in an aloha
shirt, flared Wranglers, and dying sandals. “Jakes.”
“I, uh, wanna follow up my Terror in Sewerland series, to tie in with Jaws fever. Dirk Melon,
he can be a freelance hack, is found under 50th East Street on a routine maintenance inspection.
Or rather his, uh, remains are. Dental records and tattered press pass ID him. Flesh torn from corpse in manner consistent with Ser-rasalmus scapularis—I thank you—queen bitch of all
piranhas, imported by fish freaks, then flushed down toilets when the meat bill gets too big. I’ll
phone Captain Vermin at City Hall and have him deny a spate of attacks on sewage workers.
Taking notes, Luisa? Believe nothing till it’s officially denied. So c’mon, Grelsch. Time you
gave me that raise?”
“Just be grateful your last paycheck didn’t boing. On my desk by eleven tomorrow, with a pic
of one of those snappers. A question, Luisa?”
“Yes. Is there a new editorial policy no one’s told me about that excludes articles containing
“Hey, metaphysics seminar is on the roof. Just take the elevator up and keep walking until you
hit the sidewalk. Anything is true if enough people believe it is. Nancy, what’ve you got for
Nancy O’Hagan has conservative clothes, a pickled complexion, and giraffe-size eyelashes that
often come unstuck. “My trusty mole got a picture of the bar on the president’s airplane.
‘Wing-dings and gin slings on Air Force One.’ The dumb money says the last drop’s been
squeezed out of the old soak, but Auntie Nance thinks not.”
Grelsch considers. Telephones ring and typewriters clack in the background. “Okay, if nothing
fresher comes up. Oh, and interview that ventriloquist puppet guy who lost his arms for It
Never Rains … Nussbaum. You’re up.”
Jerry Nussbaum wipes dewdrops of choco-Popsicle from his beard, leans back, and triggers a
landslide of papers. “The cops are chasing their own asses on the St. Christopher case, so how
about a Are You St. Christopher’s Next Slaying?’ piece? Profiles of all the snuffs to date and
reconstructions of the victims’ last minutes. Where they were going, who they were meeting,
what thoughts were going through their heads …”
“When St. Chris’s bullet went through their heads.” Roland Jakes laughs.
“Yeah, Jakes, let’s hope he’s attracted to flashy Hawaiian colors. Then later I’m seeing the
colored streetcar driver the cops had on the rack last week. He’s suing the police department for
wrongful arrest under the Civil Rights Act.”
“Could be a cover story. Luisa?”
“I met an atomic engineer.” Luisa ignores the indifference chilling the room. “An inspector at
Seaboard Incorporated.” Nancy O’Hagan is doing her fingernails, driving Luisa to present her
suspicions as facts. “He believes the new HYDRA nuclear reactor at Swannekke Island isn’t
as safe as the official line. Isn’t safe at all, in fact. Its launch ceremony is this afternoon, so I
want to drive out and see if I can turn anything up.”
“Hot shit, a technical launch ceremony,” exclaims Nussbaum. “What’s that rumbling sound,
everyone? A Pulitzer Prize, rolling this way?”
“Oh, kiss my ass, Nussbaum.”
Jerry Nussbaum sighs. “In my wettest dreams …”
Luisa is torn between retaliation—Yeah, and letting the worm know how much he riles you—
and ignoring him—Yeah, and letting the worm get away with saying what the heck he wants.
Dom Grelsch breaks her impasse. “Marketeers prove”—he twirls a pencil—“every scientific
term you use represents two thousand readers putting down the magazine and turning on a
rerun of I Love Lucy.”
“Okay,” says Luisa. “How about ‘Seaboard Atom Bomb to Blow Buenas Yerbas to Kingdom
“Terrific, but you’ll need to prove it.”
“Like Jakes can prove his story?”
“Hey” Grelsch’s pencil stops twirling. “Fictitious people eaten by fictitious fish can’t flay every
last dollar off you in the courts or lean on your bank to pull the plug. A coast-to-coast operation like Seaboard Power Inc. has lawyers who can and, sweet Mother of God, you put a foot
wrong, they will.”
Luisa’s rust-orange VW Beetle travels a flat road toward a mile-long bridge connecting Yerbas
Cape to Swannekke Island, whose power station dominates the lonely estuary. The bridge
checkpoint is not quiet today A hundred-strong demonstration lines the last stretch, chanting,
“Swannekke C over our dead bodies!” A wall of police keeps them back from the line of nine
or ten vehicles. Luisa reads the placards while she waits. YOU ARE NOW ENTERING
CANCER ISLAND, warns one, another, HELL, NO! WE WON’T GO! and, enigmatically,
A guard taps on the window; Luisa winds it down and sees her face in the guard’s sunglasses.
“Luisa Rey, Spyglass magazine.”
“Press pass, ma’am.”
Luisa gets it from her purse. “Expecting trouble today?”
“Nah.” He consults a clipboard and hands back her pass. “Only our regular nature freaks from
the trailer park. The college boys are vacationing where the surf’s better.”
As she crosses the bridge, the Swannekke B plant emerges from behind the older, grayer
cooling towers of Swannekke A. Once again, Luisa wonders about Rufus Sixsmith. Why
wouldn’t he give me a contact number? Scientists can’t be telephobic. Why did no one in the
super’s office in his apartment building even know his name? Scientists can’t have aliases.
Twenty minutes later Luisa arrives at a colony of some two hundred luxury homes overlooking
a sheltered bay. A hotel and golf course share the semiwooded slope below the power station.
She leaves her Beetle in the R & D parking lot and looks at the power station’s abstract
buildings half-hidden by the brow of the hill. An orderly row of palm trees rustles in the
Pacific wind.
“Hi!” A Chinese-American woman strides up. “You look lost. Here for the launch?” Her
stylish oxblood suit, flawless makeup, and sheer poise make Luisa feel shabby in her blueberry
suede jacket. “Fay Li”—the woman offers her hand—“Seaboard PR.”
“Luisa Rey, Spyglass magazine.”
Fay Li’s handshake is powerful. “Spyglass? I didn’t realize—”
“—our editorial scope includes energy policy?”
Fay Li smiles. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a feisty magazine.”
Luisa invokes Dom Grelsch’s reliable deity “Market research identifies a growing public who
demand more substance. I was hired as Spyglass’s highbrow face.”
“Very glad you’ve come, Luisa, whatever your brow. Let me sign you in at Reception. Security
insists on bag searches and the rest, but it’s no good having our guests treated like saboteurs.
That’s why I was hired.”
Joe Napier watches a bank of CCTV screens covering a lecture theater, its adjacent corridors, and the Public Center grounds. He stands, fluffs up his special cushion, and sits on it. Is it my
imagination, or are my old wounds aching more of late? His gaze flits from screen to screen to
screen. One shows a technician doing a sound check; another, a TV crew discussing angles
and light; Fay Li crossing the parking lot with a visitor; waitresses pouring wine into hundreds
of glasses; a row of chairs beneath a banner reading SWANNEKKE B— AN AMERICAN
The real miracle, Joseph Napier ruminates, was getting eleven out of twelve scientists to forget
the existence of a nine-month inquiry. A screen shows these very scientists drifting onstage,
chatting amicably Like Grimaldi says, every conscience has an off switch somewhere. Napier’s
thoughts segue through memorable lines from the interviews that achieved the collective
amnesia. “Between us, Dr. Franklin, the Pentagon’s lawyers are itching to try out their shiny
new Security Act. The whistle-blower is to be blacklisted in every salaried position in the
A janitor adds another chair to the row onstage.
“The choice is simple, Dr. Moses. If you want Soviet technology to burn ahead of ours, leak
this report to your Union of Concerned Scientists, fly to Moscow to collect your medal, but the
CIA has told me to tell you, you won’t be needing a round-trip ticket.”
The audience of dignitaries, scientists, think-tank members, and opinion formers take their
seats. A screen shows William Wiley, vice CEO of Seaboard Inc., joking with those VIPs to
be honored with a seat onstage.
“Professor Keene, the Defense Department brass are a little curious. Why voice your doubts
now? Are you saying your work on the prototype was slipshod?”
A slide projector beams a fish-eye aerial shot of Swannekke B.
Eleven out of twelve. Only Rufus Sixsmith gets away.
Napier speaks into his walkie-talkie. “Fay? Show starts in ten minutes.”
Static. “Copy that, Joe. I’m escorting a visitor to the lecture theater.”
“Report to Security when you’re through, please.”
Static. “Copy. Over and out.”
Napier weighs the set in his hand. And Joe Napier? Has his conscience got an off switch? He
sips his bitter black coffee. Hey, buddy, get off my case. I’m only following orders. Eighteen
months till I retire, then it’s off to fish in sweet rushing rivers until I turn into a goddamn
Milly his deceased wife, watches her husband from the photograph on his console desk.
“Our great nation suffers from a debilitating addiction.” Alberto Grimaldi, Seaboard CEO and
Newsweek Man of the Year, is king of the dramatic pause. “Its name is Oil.” He is gilded by
the podium lights. “Geologists tell us, just seventy-four billion gallons of this Jurassic ocean
scum remain in the Persian Gulf. Enough, maybe, to see out our century? Probably not. The
most imperative question facing the USA, ladies and gentlemen, is ‘Then what?’ ”
Alberto Grimaldi scans his audience. In the palm of my hand. “Some bury their heads in the
sand. Some fantasize about wind turbines, reservoirs, and”—wry half smile—“pig gas.”
Appreciative chuckle. “At Seaboard we deal in realities.” Voice up. “I am here today to tell you
that the cure for oil is right here, right now, on Swannekke Island!”
He smiles as the cheers subside. “As of today, domestic, abundant, and safe atomic energy has come of age! Friends, I am so very, very proud to present one of the major engineering
innovations in history … the HYDRA-Zero reactor!” The slide screen changes to show a
cross-section diagram, and a primed section of the audience applauds wildly, prompting most
of the theater to follow suit.
“But hey, now, enough of me, I’m only the CEO.” Affectionate laughter. “Here to unveil our
viewing gallery and flick that switch to connect Swannekke B to the national grid, the Seaboard
family is deeply honored to welcome a very special visitor. Known on Capitol Hill as the
president’s ‘Energy Guru’ ”—full smile—“it gives me profound pleasure to welcome a man
who needs no introduction. Federal Power Commissioner Lloyd Hooks!”
An immaculately groomed man strides onstage to great applause. Lloyd Hooks and Alberto
Grimaldi grasp each other’s forearms in a gesture of fraternal love and trust. “Your
scriptwriters are getting better,” Lloyd Hooks murmurs, as both men grin broadly for the
audience, “but you’re still Greed on Two Legs.”
Alberto Grimaldi backslaps Lloyd Hooks and replies in kind, “You’ll only wrangle your way
onto this company’s board over my dead body, you venal sonofabitch!”
Lloyd Hooks beams out at the audience. “So you can still come up with creative solutions,
A cannonade of flashes opens fire.
A young woman in a blueberry jacket slips out of a rear exit.
“The ladies’ restroom, please?”
A guard speaking on his walkie-talkie waves her down a corridor.
Luisa Rey glances back. The guard’s back is turned, so she continues on around a corner and
into a grid of repeated corridors, chilled and muffled by humming air coolers. She passes a pair
of hurrying technicians in overalls who eye her breasts from under their caps but who do not
challenge her. Doors bear cryptic signs. W212 DEMI-OUTLETS, YOO9 SUBPASSES
[AC], V77O HAZ-ARDLESS [EXEMPTED]. Periodic higher-security doors have keypad
entry systems. At a stairwell she examines a floor plan but finds no trace of any Sixsmith.
“You lost, lady?”
Luisa does her best to recover her poise. A silver-haired black janitor stares at her.
“Yes, I’m looking for Dr. Sixsmith’s room.” “Uh-huh. English guy. Third floor, C105.”
“Thank you.”
“He ain’t been around a week or two.” “Is that a fact? Can you tell me why?” “Uh-huh. Went
to Vegas on vacation.” “Dr. Sixsmith? Vegas?” “Uh-huh. So I was told.”
Room C105’s door is ajar. A recent attempt to erase “Dr. Sixsmith” from the nameplate ended
in messy failure. Through the crack Luisa Rey watches a young man sitting on the table, sifting
through a pile of a notebooks. The contents of the room are in several shipping crates. Luisa
remembers her father saying, Acting like an insider can be enough to be one.
“Well,” says Luisa, strolling in. “You’re not Dr. Sixsmith, are you?”
The man drops the notebook guiltily, and Luisa knows she’s bought a few moments. “Oh, my
God”—he stares back—“you must be Megan.”
Why be contradictory? “And you are?”“Isaac Sachs. Engineer.” He gets to his feet and aborts a premature handshake. “I worked with
your uncle on his report.” Brisk footsteps echo up the stairwell. Isaac Sachs closes the door.
His voice is low and nervy: “Where’s Rufus hiding, Megan? I’ve been worried sick. Have you
heard from him?”
“I was hoping you could tell me what’s happened.”
Fay Li strides in with the unimpressed security man. “Luisa. Still looking for the ladies’
Act stupid. “No. I’m all finished with the ladies’ room—it was spotlessly clean—but I’m late
for my appointment with Dr. Six-smith. Only … well, it seems he’s moved out.”
Isaac Sachs makes a “hah?” noise. “You’re not Sixsmith’s niece?”
“Excuse me, but I never said I was.” Luisa produces a pre-prepared gray lie for Fay Li. “I met
Dr. Sixsmith on Nantucket last spring. We found we were both based in Buenas Yerbas, so he
gave me his card. I dug it out three weeks ago, called him up, and we arranged to meet today to
discuss a science feature for Spyglass.” She consults her watch. “Ten minutes ago. The launch
speeches went on longer than I’d expected, so I slipped quietly away. I hope I haven’t caused
any trouble?”
Fay Li acts convinced. “We can’t have unauthorized people wandering around a sensitive
research institute like ours.”
Luisa acts contrite. “I thought signing in and having my bag checked was the security
procedure, but I guess that was naïve. Dr. Sixsmith will vouch for me, though. Just ask him.”
Sachs and the guard both glance at Fay Li, who does not miss a beat. “That isn’t going to be
possible. One of our Canadian projects needed Dr. Sixsmith’s attention. I can only imagine his
secretary didn’t have your contact details when she cleared his appointments diary”
Luisa looks at the boxes. “Looks like he’s going to be away for a while.”
“Yes, so we’re shipping him his resources. His consultancy here at Swannekke was winding
up. Dr. Sachs here has done a gallant job of tying up the loose ends.”
“So much for my first interview with a great scientist.”
Fay Li holds the door open. “Maybe we can find you another.”
“Operator?” Rufus Sixsmith cradles the receiver in an anonymous suburban motel outside
Buenas Yerbas. “I’m having trouble placing a call to Hawaii … yes. I’m trying to call …” He
reads out Megan’s telephone number. “Yes, I’ll stay by the phone.”
On a TV with no yellow or green, Lloyd Hooks backslaps Alberto Grimaldi at the inauguration
of the new HYDRA reactor at Swannekke Island. They salute the lecture theater like
conquering sportsmen, and silver confetti falls from the roof. “No stranger to controversy,”
says a reporter, “Seaboard CEO Alberto Grimaldi today announced the go-ahead of
Swannekke C. Fifty million federal dollars will be poured into the second HYDRA-Zero
reactor, and thousands of new jobs will be created. Fears that the mass arrests seen earlier this
summer at Three Mile Island would be repeated in the Golden State did not materialize.”
Frustrated and weary, Rufus Sixsmith addresses the TV “And when the hydrogen buildup
blows the roof off the containment chamber? When prevailing winds shower radiation over
California?” He turns the set off and squeezes the bridge of his nose. I proved it. I proved it.
You couldn’t buy me, so you tried intimidation. I let you, Lord forgive me, but no longer. I’m
not sitting on my conscience any longer.The telephone rings. Sixsmith snatches it up. “Megan?”
A brusque male voice. “They’re coming.”
“Who is this?”
“They traced your last call to the Talbot Motel, 1046 Olympia Boulevard. Get to the airport
now, get on the next flight for England, and conduct your exposé from over there, if you must.
But go.”
“Why should I believe—”
“Use logic. If I’m lying, you’re still back in England safe and sound—with your report. If I’m
not lying, you’re dead.”
“I demand to know—”
“You’ve got twenty minutes to get away, max. Go!”
Dial tone, a droning eternity
Jerry Nussbaum rotates his office chair, straddles it, places his folded arms on its back, and
rests his chin on them. “Picture the scene, me and six dreadlocked freaks of the negroid
persuasion, a handgun tickling my tonsils. Not talking dead-of-night Harlem here, I’m talking
Greenwich goddamn Village in broad goddamn daylight after a sixteen-pound steak with
Norman goddamn Mailer. So there we were, this black bro’ frisks me down with his bitonal
paw and relieves me of my wallet. ‘Wassis? Alligator skin?’ ” Nuss-baum does a Richard
Pryor accent. “ ‘No fuckin’ class, Whitey!’ Class? Those bums made me turn out my pockets
for my every last cent—literally. But Nussbaum had the last laugh, you bet he did. In the cab
back to Times Square, I wrote my now-classic ‘New Tribes’ editorial—no point in false
modesty—and got it syndicated thirty times by the end of the week! My muggers turned me
into a household name. So, Luey-Luey what say you take me to dinner and I teach you how to
extract a little gold from the Fangs of Fate?”
Luisa’s typewriter pings. “If the muggers took your every last cent—literally—what were you
doing in a cab from Greenwich Village to Times Square? Sell your body for the fare?”
“You”—Nussbaum shifts his mass—“have a genius for missing the point.”
Roland Jakes drips candle wax onto a photograph. “Definition of the Week. What’s a
The joke is old by summer 1975. “A mugged liberal.”
Jakes, stung, goes back to his picture-doctoring.
Luisa crosses the office to Dom Grelsch’s door. Her boss is speaking on the phone in a low,
irate voice. Luisa waits outside but overhears. “No—no, no, Mr. Frum, it is black-and-white,
tell me— hey, I’m talking now—tell me a more black-and-white ‘condition’ than leukemia?
Know what I think? I think my wife is just one piece of paperwork between you and your three
o’clock golf slot, isn’t she? Then prove it to me. Do you have a wife, Mr. Frum? Do you? You
do. Can you imagine your wife lying in a hospital ward with her hair falling out? … What?
What did you say? ‘Getting emotional won’t help’? Is that all you can offer, Mr. Frum? Yeah,
buddy, you’re damn right I’ll be seeking legal counsel!” Grelsch slams the receiver down, lays
into his punching bag gasping “Frum!” with each blow, collapses into his chair, lights a
cigarette, and catches sight of Luisa hesitating in his doorway “Life. A Force Ten shitstorm.
You hear any of that?”
“The gist. I can come back later.”“No. Come in, sit down. Are you young, healthy, and strong, Luisa?”
“Yes.” Luisa sits on boxes. “Why?”
“Because what I gotta say about your article on this unsubstantiated cover-up at Seaboard will,
frankly, leave you old, sick, and weak.”
At Buenas Yerbas International Airport, Dr. Rufus Sixsmith places a vanilla binder into locker
number 909, glances around the crowded concourse, feeds the slot with coins, turns the key,
and slips this into a padded khaki envelope addressed to Luisa Rey at Spyglass, Klugh Bldg.
12F, 3rd Avenue, BY. Sixsmith’s pulse rises as he nears the postal desk. What if they get me
before I reach it? His pulse rockets. Businessmen, families with luggage carts, snakes of
elderly tourists all seem intent on thwarting his progress. The mailbox slot looms closer. Just
yards away now, just inches.
The khaki envelope is swallowed and gone. Godspeed.
Sixsmith next lines up for an airplane ticket. News of delays lulls him like a litany. He keeps a
nervous eye out for signs of Seaboard’s agents coming to pick him up at this late hour. Finally,
a ticket clerk waves him over.
“I have to get to London. Any destination in the United Kingdom, in fact. Any seat, any airline.
I’ll pay in cash.”
“Not a prayer, sir.” The clerk’s tiredness shows through her makeup. “Earliest I can
manage”—she consults a teleprinted sheet— “London Heathrow … tomorrow afternoon,
three-fifteen departure, Laker Skytrains, change at JFK.”
“It’s terribly important that I leave sooner.”
“I’m sure it is, sir, but we got air-traffic-control strikes and acres of stranded passengers.”
Sixsmith tells himself that not even Seaboard could arrange aviation strikes to detain him.
“Then tomorrow it shall have to be. One-way, business class, please, nonsmoking. Is there
overnight accommodation anywhere in the airport?”
“Yes, sir, third level. Hotel Bon Voyage. You’ll be comfortable there. If I can just see your
passport, please, so I can process your ticketing?”
A stained-glass sunset illuminates the velveteen Hemingway in Luisa’s apartment. Luisa is
buried in Harnessing the Sun: Two Decades of Peacetime Atomic Power, chewing a pen.
Javier is at her desk doing a sheet of long-division problems. Carole King’s Tapestry LP is
playing at a low volume. Drifting through the windows comes the dim roar of automobiles
heading home. The telephone rings, but Luisa lets it. Javier studies the answering machine as it
clunks into action. “Hi, Luisa Rey can’t come to the phone right now, but if you leave your
name and number, I’ll get back to you.”
“I loathe these contraptions,” complains the caller. “Cookie, it’s your mother. I just heard from
Beatty Griffin, who told me you split up with Hal—last month? I was dumbstruck! You didn’t
breathe a word at your father’s funeral, or at Alphonse’s. This bottling-up worries me so much. Dougie and I are having a fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society and it’d mean the sun,
the moon, and the stars to us if you’d abandon your poky little nest just for one weekend and
come stay, Cookie? The Henderson triplets will be here, that’s Damien the cardiologist, Lance
the gynecologist, and Jesse the … Doug? Doug! Jesse Henderson, what does he do? A lobotomist? Oh, funny. Anyway, daughter of mine, Beatty tells me by some freak of planetary
alignment all three brothers are unattached. On the hoof, Cookie, on the hoof! So call the
moment you get this. All my love now.” She ends with a suction kiss, “Mmmmchwaaa!”
“She sounds like the mother on Bewitched.” Javier lets a little time go by “What’s
Luisa doesn’t look up. “When you’re so amazed you can’t speak.”
“She didn’t sound very dumbstruck, did she?”
Luisa is engrossed in her work.
“ ‘Cookie’?”
Luisa flings a slipper at the boy.
In his hotel room at the Bon Voyage, Dr. Rufus Sixsmith reads a sheaf of letters written to him
nearly half a century ago by his friend Robert Frobisher. Sixsmith knows them by heart, but
their texture, rustle, and his friend’s faded handwriting calm his nerves. These letters are what
he would save from a burning building. At seven o’clock precisely, he washes, changes his
shirt, and sandwiches the nine read letters in the Gideon’s Bible—this he replaces in the
bedside cabinet. Sixsmith slips the unread letters into his jacket pocket for the restaurant.
Dinner is a minute steak and strips of fried eggplant, with a poorly washed salad. It deadens
rather than satisfies Sixsmith’s appetite. He leaves half on his plate and sips carbonated water
as he reads Frobisher’s last letters. He witnesses himself through Robert’s words searching
Bruges for his unstable friend, first love, and if I’m honest, my last.
In the hotel elevator Sixsmith considers the responsibility he put on Luisa Rey’s shoulders,
wondering if he’s done the right thing. The curtains of his room blow in as he opens the door.
He calls out, “Who’s in here?”
No one. No one knows where you are. His imagination has been playing tricks on him for
weeks now. Sleep deprivation. “Look,” he tells himself, “in forty-eight hours you’ll be back in
Cambridge on your rainy, safe, narrow island. You’ll have your facilities, your allies, your
contacts, and you can plan your broadside on Seaboard from there.”
Bill Smoke watches Rufus Sixsmith leave his hotel room, waits five minutes, then lets himself
in. He sits on the rim of the bathtub and flexes his gloved fists. No drug, no religious
experience touches you like turning a man into a corpse. You need a brain, though. Without
discipline and expertise, you’ll soon find yourself strapped into an electric chair. The assassin
strokes a lucky Krugerrand in his pocket. Smoke is wary of being a slave to superstition, but
he isn’t about to mess with the amulet just to prove a point. A tragedy for loved ones, a big fat nothing to everyone else, and a problem solved for my clients. I’m just the instrument of my
clients’ will. If it wasn’t me it’d be the next fixer in the Yellow Pages. Blame its user, blame its
maker, but don’t blame the gun. Bill Smoke hears the lock. Breathe. The pills he took earlier
clarify his perception, terribly, and when Sixsmith shuffles into the bedroom, humming
“Leaving on a Jet Plane,” the hit man could swear he can feel his victim’s pulse, slower than
his own. Smoke sights his prey through the door crack. Sixsmith flumps onto the bed. The
assassin visualizes the required motions: Three steps out, fire from the side, through the
temple, up close. Smoke darts from the doorway; Sixsmith utters a guttural syllable and tries to
rise, but the silenced bullet is already boring through the scientist’s skull and into the mattress.
The body of Rufus Sixsmith falls back, as if he has curled up for a postprandial nap.
Blood soaks into the thirsty eiderdown.
Fulfillment throbs in Bill Smoke’s brain. Look what I did.
Wednesday morning is smog-scorched and heat-hammered, like the last hundred mornings and
the next fifty Luisa Rey drinks black coffee in the steamy cool of the Snow White Diner on the
corner of Second Avenue and Sixteenth Street, a two-minute walk from the Spyglass offices,
reading about a Baptist ex–naval nuclear engineer from Atlanta called James Carter, who plans
to run for the Democratic nomination. Sixteenth Street traffic moves in frustrated inches and
headlong stampedes. The sidewalks blur with hurrying people and skateboarders. “Nothin’ for
breakfast this mornin’, Luisa?” asks Bart, the fry cook.
“Only news,” replies his very regular customer.
Roland Jakes trips over the doorway and makes his way to Luisa. “Uh, this seat free? Didn’t
eat a bite this morning. Shirl’s left me. Again.”
“Features meeting in fifteen minutes.”
“Bags of time.” Jakes sits down and orders eggs over easy “Page nine,” he says to Luisa.
“Right-hand bottom corner. Something you should see.”
Luisa turns to page nine and reaches for her coffee. Her hand freezes.
Eminent British scientist Dr. Rufus Sixsmith was found dead Tuesday morning in his room at
Buenas Yerbas International Airport’s Hotel Bon Voyage, having taken his own life. Dr.
Sixsmith, former head of the Global Atomic Commission, had been employed as a consultant
for Seaboard Corporation at the blue-chip utility’s Swannekke Island installation outside
Buenas Yerbas City for ten months. He was known to have had a lifelong battle with clinical
depression, and for the week prior to his death had been incommunicado. Ms. Fay Li,
spokeswoman for Seaboard, said, “Dr. Sixsmith’s untimely death is a tragedy for the entire
international scientific community. We at Seaboard Village on Swannekke Island feel we’ve lost
not just a greatly respected colleague but a very dear friend. Our heartfelt condolences go to
his own family and his many friends. He shall be greatly missed.” Dr. Six-smith’s body,
discovered with a single gunshot wound to the head by hotel maids, is being flown home for
burial in his native England. A medical examiner at BYPD confirmed there are no suspicious
circumstances surrounding the incident.“So”—Jakes grins—“is your exposé of the century screwed up now?”
Luisa’s skin prickles and her eardrums hurt.
“Whoops.” Jakes lights up a cigarette. “Were you close?”
“He couldn’t”—Luisa fumbles her words—“wouldn’t have done it.”
Jakes approximates gentleness. “Kinda looks like he did, Luisa.”
“You don’t kill yourself if you have a mission.”
“You might if your mission makes you crazy.”
“He was murdered, Jakes.”
Jakes represses a he re-we-go-again face. “Who by?”
“Seaboard Corporation. Of course.”
“Ah. His employer. Of course. Motive?”
Luisa forces herself to speak calmly and ignore Jakes’s mock conviction. “He’d written a
report on a reactor type developed at Swannekke B, the HYDRA. Plans for Site C are waiting
for Federal Power Commission approval. When it’s approved, Seaboard can license the design
for the domestic and overseas market—the government contracts alone would mean a stream of
revenue in the high tens of millions, annually. Sixsmith’s role was to give the project his
imprimatur, but he hadn’t read the script and identified lethal design flaws. In response,
Seaboard buried the report and denied its existence.”
“And your Dr. Sixsmith did what?”
“He was getting ready to go public.” Luisa slaps the newspaper. “This is what the truth cost
Jakes pierces a wobbly dome of yolk with a toast soldier. “You, uh, know what Grelsch is
going to say?”
“ ‘Hard evidence,’ ” says Luisa, like a doctor making a diagnosis. “Look, Jakes, will you tell
Grelsch … just tell him I had to go somewhere.”
The manager at the Hotel Bon Voyage is having a bad day “No, you may not see his room!
The specialized carpet cleaner has removed all traces of the incident. Who, I add, we had to pay
from our own pocket! What kind of ghoul are you, anyway? A reporter? A ghost hunter? A
“I’m”—Luisa Rey buckles with sobs from nowhere—“his niece, Megan Sixsmith.”
A stony matriarch enfolds the weeping Luisa in her mountainous bust. Random bystanders
shoot the manager foul looks. The manager goes pale and attempts damage control. “Please,
come through to the back, I’ll get you a—”
“Glass of water!” snaps the matriarch, knocking the man’s hand away.
“Wendy! Water! Please, through here, why don’t you—”
“A chair, for goodness’ sake!” The matriarch supports Luisa into the shady side office.
“Wendy! A chair! This instant!”
Luisa’s ally clasps her hands. “Let it out, honey, let it out, I’m listening. I’m Janice from Esphigmenou, Utah, and here is my story When I was your age, I was alone in my house,
coming downstairs from my daughter’s nursery, and there on the halfway landing stood my
mother. ‘Go check the baby, Janice,’ she said. I told my mother I’d checked her one minute
ago, she was sleeping fine. My mother’s voice turned to ice. ‘Don’t argue with me, young
lady, go check the baby, now!’ Sounds crazy, but only then I remembered my mother had died
the Thanksgiving before. But I ran upstairs and found my daughter choking on the cord from
the blind, wound around her neck. Thirty seconds, that would have been it. So you see?”
Luisa blinks tearfully.
“You see, honey? They pass over, but they ain’t gone.”
The chastened manager returns with a shoe box. “Your uncle’s room is occupied, I’m afraid,
but the maid found these letters inside the Gideon’s Bible. His name is on the envelope.
Naturally, I was going to have them forwarded to your family, but since you’re here …”
He hands her a sheaf of nine time-browned envelopes, each addressed to “Rufus Sixsmith,
Esq. c/o Caius College, Cambridge, England.” One is stained by a very recent tea bag. All are
badly crumpled and hastily smoothed out.
“Thank you,” says Luisa, vaguely, then more firmly. “Uncle Rufus valued his correspondence,
and now it’s all I have left of him. I won’t take up any more of your time. I’m sorry I fell to
pieces out there.”
The manager’s relief is palpable.
“You’re a very special person, Megan,” Janice from Esphigme-nou, Utah, assures Luisa, as
they part in the hotel lobby.
“You’re a very special person, Janice,” Luisa replies and returns to the parking level, passing
within ten yards of locker number 909.
Luisa Rey has been back at Spyglass’s offices for under a minute when Dom Grelsch roars
over the newsroom chatter, “Miss Rey!”
Jerry Nussbaum and Roland Jakes look up from their desks, at Luisa, at each other, and mouth,
“Ouch!” Luisa puts the Frobisher letters into a drawer, locks it, and walks into Grelsch’s
office. “Dom, sorry I couldn’t make the meeting, I—”
“Spare me the woman’s trouble excuse. Shut the door.”
“I’m not in the habit of making any excuses.”
“Are you in the habit of making meetings? You’re paid to be.”
“I’m also paid to follow up stories.”
“So you flew off to the crime scene. Did you find hard evidence missed by the cops? A
message, in blood, on the tiles? Alberto Grimaldi did it’?”
“Hard evidence isn’t hard evidence if you don’t break your back digging for it. An editor
named Dom Grelsch told me that.”
Grelsch glares at her.
“I got a lead, Dom.”
“You got a lead.”
I can’t batter you, I can’t fool you, I can only hook your curiosity. “I phoned the precinct where
Sixsmith’s case was processed.”
“There is no case! It was suicide! Unless we’re talking Marilyn Monroe, suicides don’t sell
magazines. Too depressing.”“Listen to me. Why did Sixsmith buy an airplane ticket if he was going to put a bullet through
his head later that day?”
Grelsch extends his arms to show the size of his disbelief that he is even having this
conversation. “A snap decision.”
“Then why would he have a typed suicide note—and no typewriter—ready and waiting for this
snap decision?”
“I don’t know! I don’t care! I got a publication deadline Thursday night, a dispute with the
printers, a delivery strike in the offing, and Ogilvy holding the Sword of What’s-’is-name over
my head. Hold a séance and ask Sixsmith yourself! Sixsmith was a scientist. Scientists are
“We were trapped in an elevator for ninety minutes. Cool as a cucumber. Unstable just isn’t a
word that sticks to the man. Another thing. He shot himself—supposedly—with just about the
quietest gun on the market. A Roachford .34 with fitted silencer. Catalog order only. Why
would he go to the trouble?”
“So. The cops got it wrong, the ME got it wrong, everyone got it wrong except Luisa Rey ace
cub reporter, whose penetrating insight concludes the world-famous number cruncher was
assassinated just because he’d pointed out a few hitches in some report, a report nobody agrees
exists. Am I right?”
“Half right. More likely, the police were encouraged to arrive at conclusions convenient for
“Sure, a utility company buys the cops. Stupid me.”
“Count in their subsidiaries, Seaboard Corporation is the tenth biggest corporation in the
country. They could buy Alaska if they wanted. Give me until Monday.”
“No! You got this week’s reviews and, yes, the food feature.” “If Bob Woodward had told you
he suspected President Nixon had ordered a burglary of his political rival’s offices and
recorded himself issuing the order, would you have said, ‘Forget it, Bob, honey, I need eight
hundred words on salad dressings’?”
“Don’t you dare give me the I’m-an-outraged-feminist act.” “Then don’t give me the listenI’ve-been-in-the-business-thirty-years act! One Jerry Nussbaum in the building is bad
“You’re squeezing size-eighteen reality into a size-eleven supposition. The undoing of many a
fine newspaperman. Many a fine anyone.”
“Monday! I’ll get a copy of the Sixsmith Report.” “Promises you can’t keep are not a sound
currency.” “Apart from getting on my knees and begging you, I don’t have any other currency
C’mon. Dom Grelsch doesn’t snuff out solid investigative journalism just because it doesn’t
turn up the goods in one morning. Dad told me you were just about the most daring reporter
working anywhere in the mid-sixties.”
Grelsch swivels and looks over Third Avenue. “Did he bullshit!” “He did too bullshit! That
exposé on Ross Zinn’s campaign funds in ’sixty-four. You took a bone-chilling white
supremacist out of politics for good. Dad called you dogged, cussed, and indefatigable. Ross
Zinn took nerve, sweat, and time. I’ll do the nerve and sweat, all I want from you is a little
time.” “Roping your pa into this was a dirty trick.” “Journalism calls for dirty tricks.”
Grelsch stubs his cigarette and lights another. “Monday, with Six-smith’s inquiry, and it’s got
to be hurricane proof, Luisa, with names, sources, facts. Who squashed this report, and why,
and how Swan-nekke B will turn Southern California into Hiroshima. Something else. If you
get evidence Sixsmith was murdered, we’re going to the cops before we print. I don’t want
dynamite under my car seat.”
“ ‘All the news without fear or favor.’ ”
“Beat it.”Nancy O’Hagan makes a not-bad face as Luisa sits at her desk and takes out Sixsmith’s
rescued letters.
In his office, Grelsch lays into his punching bag. “Dogged!” Wham! “Cussed!” Wham!
“Indefatigable!” The editor catches his reflection, mocking him.
A Sephardic romance, composed before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, fills the Lost
Chord Music Store on the northwest corner of Spinoza Square and Sixth Avenue. The welldressed man on the telephone, pallid for this tanned city repeats the inquiry: “Cloud Atlas
Sextet… Robert Frobisher … As a matter of fact I have heard of it, though I’ve never laid my
sticky paws on an actual pressing…. Frobisher was a wunderkind, he died just as he got
going…. Let me see here, I’ve got a list from a dealer in San Fran who specializes in rarities….
Franck, Fitzroy Frobisher… Here we go, even a little footnote…. Only five hundred
recordings pressed … in Holland, before the war, my, no wonder it’s rare…. The dealer has a
copy of an acetate, made in the fifties … by a liquidated French outfit. Cloud Atlas Sextet must
bring the kiss of death to all who take it on…. I’ll try, he had one as of a month ago, but no
promises on the sound quality and I must warn you, cheap it ain’t…. It’s quoted here at … one
hundred twenty dollars … plus our commission at ten percent, that makes … It is? Okay, I’ll
take your name down…. Ray who? Oh, Miss R-E-Y, so sorry. Normally we ask for a deposit,
but you’ve got an honest voice. A few days. You’re welcome now.” The store clerk scribbles
himself a to-do note and lifts the stylus back to the start of “¿Por qué lloras blanca niña?,”
lowers the needle onto shimmering black vinyl, and dreams of Jewish shepherd boys plucking
their lyres on starlit Iberian hillsides.
Luisa Rey doesn’t see the dusty black Chevy coasting by as she enters her apartment building.
Bill Smoke, driving the Chevy memorizes the address: 108, Pacific Eden Apartments.
Luisa has reread Sixsmith’s letters a dozen times or more in the last day and a half. They
disturb her. A university friend of Six-smith’s, Robert Frobisher, wrote the series in the
summer of 1931 during a prolonged stay at a château in Belgium. It is not the unflattering light
they shed on a pliable young Rufus Sixsmith that bothers Luisa but the dizzying vividness of
the images of places and people that the letters have unlocked. Images so vivid she can only call
them memories. The pragmatic journalist’s daughter would, and did, explain these “memories”
as the work of an imagination hypersensitized by her father’s recent death, but a detail in one
letter will not be dismissed. Robert Frobisher mentions a comet-shaped birthmark between his
shoulder blade and collarbone.
I just don’t believe in this crap. I just don’t believe it. I don’t.
Builders are remodeling the lobby of Pacific Eden Apartments. Sheets are on the floor, an
electrician is prodding a light fitting, an unseen hammerer hammers. Malcolm the super
glimpses Luisa and calls out, “Hey, Luisa! An uninvited guest ran up to your apartment twenty
minutes ago!” But the noise of a drill drowns him out, he has a man from city hall on the phone about building codes, and anyway, Luisa has already stepped into the elevator.
“Surprise,” says Hal Brodie, drily, caught in the act of taking books and records from Luisa’s
shelves and putting them into his gym bag. “Hey,” he says, to hide a jab of guilt, “you’ve had
your hair cut short.”
Luisa isn’t very surprised. “Don’t all dumped women?”
Hal clicks in the back of his throat.
Luisa is angry with herself. “So. Reclamation Day.”
“Just about done.” Hal brushes imaginary dust off his hands. “Is the selected Wallace Stevens
yours or mine?”
“It was a Christmas present from Phoebe to us. Phone Phoebe. Let her decide. Or else rip out
the odd pages and leave me the even. This is like a no-knock raid. You could’ve phoned.”
“I did. All I got was your machine. Junk it, if you never listen to it.”
“Don’t be stupid, it cost a fortune. So what brings you up to town, apart from your love of
modernist poetry?”
“Location scouting for Starsky and Hutch.”
“Starsky and Hutch don’t live in Buenas Yerbas.”
“Starsky gets kidnapped by the West Coast Triad. There’s a gunfight on Buenas Yerbas Bay
Bridge, and we’ve got a chase scene scripted with David and Paul running over car roofs at
rush hour. It’ll be a headache to okay it with the traffic cops, but we need to do it on location or
we’ll lose any semblance of artistic integrity”
“Hey. You’re not taking Blood on the Tracks.”
“It’s mine.”
“Not anymore.” Luisa is not joking.
With ironic deference, Brodie takes out the record from the gym bag. “Look, I was sorry to
hear about your dad.”
Luisa nods, feels grief rise and her defenses stiffen. “Yeah.”
“I guess it was … a release, of sorts.”
True, but only the bereaved can actually say so. Luisa resists the temptation to say something
acidic. She remembers her father ribbing Hal, “the TV Kid.” I am not going to start crying.
“So, you’re doing okay?”
“I’m doing fine. And you?”
“Fine.” Luisa looks at the new gaps in her old shelves.
“Work’s good?”
“Work’s fine.” Put us both out of our misery. “I believe you have a key that belongs to me.”
Hal zips up his gym bag, fishes in his pocket, and drops the door key onto her palm. With a
flourish, to underline the symbolism of the act. Luisa smells an alien aftershave and imagines
Her splashing it on him this morning. He didn’t own that shirt eight weeks ago, either. The
cowboy boots they’d bought together the day of the Segovia concert. Hal steps over a pair of
Javier’s filthy sneakers, and Luisa watches him think better of making a funny about her new
man. Instead, he just says, “So long, then.”
Shake hands? Hug him? “Yeah.”
The door closes.
Luisa puts the chain on and replays the encounter. She turns on the shower and undresses. Her bathroom mirror is half-hidden by a shelf of shampoos, conditioners, a box of sanitary
napkins, skin creams, and gift soaps. Luisa shunts these aside to get a clearer view of a
birthmark between her shoulder blade and collarbone. Her encounter with Hal is displaced.
Coincidences happen all the time. But it is undeniably shaped like a comet. The mirror mists
over. Facts are your bread and butter. Birthmarks can look like anything you choose, not only
comets. You’re still upset by Dad’s death, that’s all. The journalist steps into the shower, but
her mind walks the passageways of Zedelghem château.
The Swannekke Island protesters’ camp lies on the mainland between a beach and a marshy
lagoon. Behind the lagoon, acres of citrus orchards rise inland to arid hills. Tatty tents,
rainbow-sprayed camper vans, and trailer homes look like unwanted gifts the Pacific dumped
here. A strung banner declares: PLANET AGAINST SEABOARD. On the far side of the
bridge sits Swannekke A, quivering like Utopia in a noon mirage. White toddlers tanned brown
as leather paddle in the lazy shallows; a bearded apostle washes clothes in a tub; a couple of
snaky teenagers kiss in the dune grass.
Luisa locks her VW and crosses the scrub to the encampment. Seagulls float in the joyless heat.
Agricultural machinery drones in the distance. Several inhabitants approach but not in a
friendly manner. “Yeah?” challenges a man, with a hawkish Native American complexion.
“I presumed this was a public park.”
“You presumed wrong. It’s private.”
“I’m a journalist. I was hoping to interview a few of you.”
“Who do you work for?”
“Spyglass magazine.”
The bad weather lightens a little. “Shouldn’t you be writing about the latest adventures of
Barbra Streisand’s nose?” says the Native American, adding a sardonic “No disrespect.”
“Well, sorry, I’m not the Herald Tribune, but why not give me a chance? You could use a little
positive coverage, unless you’re seriously planning to dismantle that atomic time bomb across
the water by waving placards and strumming protest songs. No disrespect.”
A southerner growls: “Lady, you’re full of it.”
“The interview’s over,” says the Native American. “Get off this land.”
“Don’t worry, Milton”—an elderly, white-haired, russet-faced woman stands on her trailer’s
step—“I’ll see this one.” An aristocratic mongrel watches from beside his mistress. Clearly, her
word carries weight, for the crowd disperses with no further protest.
Luisa approaches the trailer. “The love and peace generation?”
“Nineteen seventy-five is nowhere near 1968. Seaboard has informers in our network. Last
weekend the authorities wanted to clear the site for the VIPs, and blood was spilled. That gave
the cops an excuse for a round of arrests. I’m afraid paranoia pays. Come in. I’m Hester Van
“I was very much hoping to meet you, Doctor,” says Luisa.
26An hour later Luisa feeds her apple core to Hester Van Zandt’s genteel dog. Van Zandt’s
bookshelf-lined office is as neat as Grelsch’s is chaotic. Luisa’s host is finishing up. “The
conflict between corporations and activists is that of narcolepsy versus remembrance. The
corporations have money, power, and influence. Our sole weapon is public outrage. Outrage
blocked the Yuccan Dam, ousted Nixon, and in part, terminated the monstrosities in Vietnam.
But outrage is unwieldy to manufacture and handle. First, you need scrutiny; second,
widespread awareness; only when this reaches a critical mass does public outrage explode into
being. Any stage may be sabotaged. The world’s Alberto Grimaldis can fight scrutiny by
burying truth in committees, dullness, and misinformation, or by intimidating the scrutinizers.
They can extinguish awareness by dumbing down education, owning TV stations, paying
‘guest fees’ to leader writers, or just buying the media up. The media—and not just The
Washington Post—is where democracies conduct their civil wars.”
“That’s why you rescued me from Milton and his compatriots.”
“I wanted to give you the truth as we see it, so you can at least make an informed choice about
which side you’ll back. Write a satire about GreenFront New Waldenites in their miniWoodstock and you’ll confirm every Republican Party prejudice and bury truth a little deeper.
Write about radiation levels in seafood, ‘safe’ pollution limits set by polluters, government
policy auctioned for campaign donations, and Seaboard’s private police force, and you’ll raise
the temperature of public awareness, fractionally, toward its ignition point.”
Luisa asks, “Did you know Rufus Sixsmith?”
“I certainly did, God rest his soul.”
“I’d have put you on opposing sides … or no?”
Van Zandt nods at Luisa’s tactics. “I met Rufus in the early sixties at a think tank in D.C.,
connected with the Federal Power Commission. I was in awe of him! Nobel laureate, veteran
of the Manhattan Project.”
“Might you know anything about a report he wrote condemning the HYDRA-Zero and
demanding Swannekke B be taken off-line?”
“Dr. Sixsmith? Are you totally sure?”
“ ‘Totally sure’? No. ‘Pretty damn sure’? Yes.”
Van Zandt looks edgy. “My God, if GreenFront could get its hands on a copy …” Her face
clouds over. “If the Dr. Rufus Sixsmith wrote a hatchet job on the HYDRA-Zero, and if he
threatened to go public, well, I no longer believe he shot himself.”
Luisa notices they are both whispering. She asks the question she imagines Grelsch asking:
“Doesn’t it smack of paranoia to believe Seaboard would assassinate a man of Sixsmith’s
stature, just to avoid negative publicity?”
Van Zandt removes a photograph of a woman in her seventies from a corkboard. “A name for
you. Margo Roker.”
“I saw her name on a placard the other day.”
“Margo’s been a GreenFront activist since Seaboard bought Swannekke Island. She owns this
land and lets us operate here as a thorn in Seaboard’s side. Six weeks ago her bungalow—two
miles up the coast—was burgled. Margo has no money, just a few scraps of land, land she’s
refused to part with, whatever inducements Seaboard dangled. Well. The burglars beat her
senseless, left her for dead, but took nothing. It’s not actually a murder case, because Margo’s
still in a coma, so the police line is that it was a poorly planned heist with an unfortunate end.”
“Unfortunate for Margo.”
“And pretty damn fortunate for Seaboard. The medical bills are burying her family. A few days
after the assault, an LA. real estate company, Open Vista, steps up and makes an offer to Margo’s cousin for these acres of coastland scrub at quadruple its market value. To make a
private nature reserve. So I ask GreenFront to do some research on Open Vista. It was
registered just eight weeks ago, and guess whose name heads the list of corporate donors?”
Van Zandt nods in the direction of Swannekke Island.
Luisa weighs all this. “You’ll be hearing from me, Hester.”
“I hope I will.”
Alberto Grimaldi enjoys his Extracurricular Security Briefings with Bill Smoke and Joe Napier
in his Swannekke office. He likes the no-nonsense demeanor of both men, in contrast to the
retinue of courtiers and petitioners. He likes sending his secretary into the reception area where
company heads, union leaders, and government men are made to wait, ideally for hours, and
hear her say, “Bill, Joe, Mr. Grimaldi has a slot for you now.” Smoke and Napier let Grimaldi
indulge the J. Edgar Hoover side of his character. He thinks of Napier as a steadfast bulldog
whose New Jersey childhood is unsoftened by thirty-five years of Californian living; Bill
Smoke is his familiar, who passes through walls, ethics, and legality to execute his master’s
Today’s meeting is enhanced by Fay Li, summoned by Napier for the last item on their
unwritten agenda: a journalist visiting Swannekke this weekend, Luisa Rey who may or may
not pose a security risk. “So, Fay,” asks Grimaldi, balancing on the edge of his desk, “what do
we know about her?”
Fay Li speaks as if from a mental checklist. “Reporter at Spyglass—I presume we all know it?
Twenty-six, ambitious, more liberal than radical. Daughter of the Lester Rey, foreign
correspondent, recently died. Mother remarried an architect after an amicable divorce seven
years ago, lives in uptown Ewingsville, B.Y. No siblings. History and economics at Berkeley,
summa cum laude. Started on the L.A. Recorder, political pieces in the Tribune and Herald.
Single, lives alone, pays her bills on time.”
“Dull as ditch water,” comments Napier.
“Then remind me why we’re discussing her,” says Smoke.
Fay Li addresses Grimaldi: “We caught her wandering around Research on Tuesday, during
the launch. She claimed to have an appointment with Dr. Sixsmith.”
“A commissioned piece for Spyglass, but I think she was fishing.”
The CEO looks at Napier, who shrugs. “Difficult to read, Mr. Grimaldi. If she was fishing, we
should assume she knows what sort of fish she was after.”
Grimaldi has a weakness for spelling out the obvious. “The report.”
“Journalists have feverish imaginations,” says Li, “especially hungry young ones looking for
their first big scoop. I suppose she might think Dr. Sixsmith’s death could be … How can I put
Alberto Grimaldi makes a puzzled face.
“Mr. Grimaldi,” fills in Smoke, “what I believe Fay has too much tact to spit out is this: the
Rey woman might be imagining we rubbed out Dr. Sixsmith.”
“ ‘Rubbed out’? Good God. Really? Joe? What do you think?”
Napier spreads his palms. “Fay might be right, Mr. Grimaldi. Spyglass isn’t known for
keeping its feet firmly rooted in fact.”“Do we have any leverage with the magazine?” asks Grimaldi.
Napier shakes his head. “I’ll get on it.”
“She phoned,” continues Li, “asking if she could interview a few of our people for a day-inthe-life-of-a-scientist piece. So I invited her to the hotel for tonight’s banquet and promised to
make a few introductions over the weekend. In fact”—she glances at her watch—“I’m meeting
her there in an hour.”
“I okayed it, Mr. Grimaldi,” says Napier. “I’d rather have her snooping under our noses, where
we can watch her.”
“Quite right, Joe. Quite right. Assess how much of a threat she poses. And lay to rest any
morbid suspicions about poor Rufus at the same time.” Tight smiles all around. “Well, Fay,
Joe, that’s a wrap, thanks for your time. Bill, a word on some matters in Toronto.”
The CEO and his fixer are left alone.
“Our friend,” begins Grimaldi, “Lloyd Hooks. He worries me.”
Bill Smoke considers this. “Any angles?”
“He’s got a spring like he’s holding four aces. I don’t like it. Watch him.”
Bill Smoke inclines his head.
“And you’d better have an accident up your sleeve for Luisa Rey Your work at the airport was
exemplary, but Sixsmith was a distinguished foreign national, and we don’t want this woman
to dig out any rumors of foul play” He nods after Napier and Li. “Do those two suspect
anything about Sixsmith?”
“Li isn’t thinking anything. She’s a PR woman, period. Napier’s not looking. There’s the
blind, Mr. Grimaldi, there’s the willfully blind, and then there’s the soon to be retired.”
Isaac Sachs sits hunched in the bay window of the Swannekke Hotel bar and watches yachts in
the creamy evening blues. A beer stands untouched on the table. The scientist’s thoughts run
from Rufus Sixsmith’s death to the fear that his secreted-away copy of the Sixsmith Report
might be found, to Napier’s warning about confidentiality The deal is, Dr. Sachs, your ideas
are the property of Seaboard Corporation. You don’t want to welch on a deal with a man like
Mr. Grimaldi, do you? Clumsy but effective.
Sachs tries to remember how it felt not to walk around with this knot in his gut. He longs for
his old lab in Connecticut, where the world was made of mathematics, energy, and atomic
cascades, and he was its explorer. He has no business in these political orders of magnitude,
where erroneous loyalties can get your brain spattered over hotel bedrooms. You’ll shred that
report, Sachs, page by goddamn page.
Then his thoughts slide to a hydrogen buildup, an explosion, packed hospitals, the first deaths
by radiation poisoning. The official inquiry. The scapegoats. Sachs bangs his knuckles
together. So far, his betrayal of Seaboard is a thought-crime, not one of action. Dare I cross
that line? The hotel manager leads a bevy of florists into the banquet hall. A woman saunters
downstairs, looks for someone who hasn’t yet arrived, and drifts into the lively bar. Sachs
admires her well-chosen suede suit, her svelte figure, her quiet pearls. The barman pours her a
glass of white wine and makes a joke that earns an acknowledgment but not a smile. She turns
his way, and he recognizes the woman he mistook for Megan Sixsmith five days ago: the knot
of fear yanks tight, and Sachs hurries out via the veranda, keeping his face averted.
Luisa wanders over to the bay window. An untouched beer sits on the table, but there’s no sign of its owner, so she sits down on the warmed seat. It’s the best seat in the house. She watches
yachts in the creamy evening blues.
Alberto Grimaldi’s gaze wanders the candlelit banquet hall. The room bubbles with sentences
more spoken than listened to. His own speech got more and longer laughs than that of Lloyd
Hooks, who now sits in sober consultation with Grimaldi’s vice CEO, William Wiley. Now,
what is that pair discussing so intently? Grimaldi jots another mental memo for Bill Smoke.
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency is telling him an interminable story about
Henry Kissinger’s schooldays, so Grimaldi addresses an imaginary audience on the subject of
“Power. What do we mean? ‘The ability to determine another man’s luck.’ You men of
science, building tycoons, and opinion formers: my jet could take off from LaGuardia, and
before I touched down in B.Y. you’d be a nobody. You Wall Street moguls, elected officials,
judges, I might need more time to knock you off your perches, but your eventual downfall
would be just as total.” Grimaldi checks with the EPA man to ensure his attention isn’t being
missed—it isn’t. “Yet how is it some men attain mastery over others while the vast majority
live and die as minions, as livestock? The answer is a holy trinity. First: God-given gifts of
charisma. Second: the discipline to nurture these gifts to maturity, for though humanity’s
topsoil is fertile with talent, only one seed in ten thousand will ever flower—for want of
discipline.” Grimaldi glimpses Fay Li steer the troublesome Luisa Rey to a circle where Spiro
Agnew holds court. The reporter is prettier in the flesh than her photograph: So that’s how she
noosed Sixsmith. He catches Bill Smoke’s eye. “Third: the will to power. This is the enigma at
the core of the various destinies of men. What drives some to accrue power where the majority
of their compatriots lose, mishandle, or eschew power? Is it addiction? Wealth? Survival?
Natural selection? I propose these are all pretexts and results, not the root cause. The only
answer can be ‘There is no “Why” This is our nature.’ ‘Who and ‘What’ run deeper than
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency quakes with mirth at his own punch line.
Grimaldi chuckles through his teeth. “A killer, Tom, an absolute killer.”
Luisa Rey plays the ditzy reporter on her best behavior to assure Fay Li she poses no threat.
Only then might she be given a free enough rein to sniff out Sixsmith’s fellow dissidents. Joe
Napier, head of Security reminds Luisa of her father—quiet, sober, similar age and hair loss.
Once or twice during the sumptuous ten-course meal she caught him watching her
thoughtfully. “And, Fay, you never feel confined on Swannekke Island, at all?”
“Swannekke? It’s paradise!” enthuses the publicist. “Buenas Yerbas only an hour away, LA.
down the coast, my family up in San Francisco, it’s ideal. Subsidized stores and utilities, free
clinic, clean air, zero crime, sea views. Even the men,” she confides, sotto voce, “come readyvetted—in fact I can access their personnel files—so you know there won’t be any total freaks in the dating pool. Speaking of which—Isaac! Isaac! You’re being conscripted.” Fay Li grabs
Isaac Sachs’s elbow. “You’ll remember bumping into Luisa Rey the other day?”
“I’m one lucky conscript. Hi, Luisa, again.”
Luisa feels an edginess in his handshake.
“Miss Rey is here,” says Fay Li, “to write an article on Swannekke anthropology.”
“Oh? We’re a dull tribe. I hope you’ll meet your word count.”
Fay Li turns her beam on full. “I’m sure Isaac could find a little time to answer any of your
questions, Luisa. Rght, Isaac?”
“I’m the very dullest of the dull.”
“Don’t believe him, Luisa,” Fay Li warns her. “It’s just a part of Isaac’s strategy. Once your
defenses are down, he pounces.”
The alleged lady-killer rocks on his heels, smiling at his toes uncomfortably
“Isaac Sachs’s tragic flaw,” analyzes Isaac Sachs, slumped in the bay window across from
Luisa Rey two hours later, “is this. Too cowardly to be a warrior, but not enough of a coward
to lie down and roll over like a good doggy.” His words slip like Bambi on ice. A mostly
empty wine bottle stands on the table. The bar is deserted. Sachs can’t remember when he was
last this drunk, or this tense and relaxed at the same time: relaxed, because an intelligent young
woman is enjoying his company; tense, because he is ready to lance the boil on his conscience.
To Sachs’s wry surprise, he is attracted to Luisa Rey, and he sorely regrets they met in these
circumstances. The woman and the reporter keep blurring into one another. “Let’s change the
subject,” Sachs says. “Your car, your”—he does a Hollywood SS officer accent—“
‘Volkswagen.’ What’s its name?”
“How do you know my Beetle has a name?”
“All Beetle owners give their cars names. But please don’t tell me it’s John, George, Paul, or
Ringo.” God, Luisa Rey, you’re beautiful.
She says, “You’ll laugh.”
“I won’t.”
“You will.”
“I, Isaac Caspar Sachs, solemnly vow not to laugh.”
“You’d better not with a middle name like Caspar. It’s Garcia.”
They both shake, noiselessly, until they burst into laughter. Maybe she likes me too, maybe
she’s not just doing her job.
Luisa lassos her laughter in. “Is that all your vows are worth?”
Sachs makes a mea culpa gesture and dabs his eyes. “They normally last longer. I don’t know
why it’s so funny, I mean, Garcia”— he snorts—“isn’t such a funny name. I once dated a girl
who called her car Rosinante, for Chrissakes.”
“An ex-Berserkeley Beatnik boyfriend named it. After Jerry Garcia, y’ know, the Grateful
Dead man. He abandoned it at my dorm when its engine sent a gasket through the back around
the time he dumped me for a cheerleader. Cheesy, but true.”
“And you didn’t take a blowtorch to it?”
“It’s not Garcia’s fault his ex-owner was a swindling sperm gun.”
“The guy must have been mad.” Sachs didn’t plan to say so, but he’s not ashamed he did.
Luisa Rey nods in gracious acknowledgment. “Anyway Garcia suits the car. Never stays tuned, prone to flashes of speed, falling to bits, its trunk won’t lock, it leaks oil, but never
seems to give up the ghost.”
Invite her back, Sachs thinks. Don’t be stupid, you’re not a pair of kids.
They watch the breakers crash in the moonlight.
Say it. “The other day”—his voice is a murmur and he feels sick—“you were looking for
something in Sixsmith’s room.” The shadows seem to prick up their ears. “Weren’t you?”
Luisa checks for eavesdroppers and speaks very quietly “I understand Dr. Sixsmith wrote a
certain report.”
“Rufus had to work closely with the team who designed and built the thing. That meant me.”
“Then you know what his conclusions were? About the HYDRA reactor?”
“We all do! Jessops, Moses, Keene … they all know.”
“About a design flaw?”
“Yes.” Nothing has changed, except everything.
“How bad would an accident be?”
“If Dr. Sixsmith is right, it’ll be much, much worse than bad.”
“Why isn’t Swannekke B just shut down pending further inquiry?”
“Money, power, usual suspects.”
“Do you agree with Sixsmith’s findings?”
Carefully. “I agree a substantial theoretical risk is present.”
“Were you pressured to keep your doubts to yourselves?”
“Every scientist was. Every scientist agreed to. Except for Six-smith.”
“Who, Isaac? Alberto Grimaldi? Does it go up to the top?”
“Luisa, what would you do with a copy of the report, if ‘one found its way into your hands?”
“Go public as fast as I possibly could.”
“Are you aware of …” I can’t say it.
“Aware that people in the upper echelons would rather see me dead than see HYDRA
discredited? Right now it’s all I’m aware of.”
“I can’t make any promises.” Christ, how feeble. “I became a scientist because … it’s like
panning for gold in a muddy torrent. Truth is the gold. I—I don’t know what I want to do …”
“Journalists work in torrents just as muddy”
The moon is over the water.
“Do,” says Luisa finally “whatever you can’t not do.”
In blustery early sunshine Luisa Rey watches golfers traverse the lush course, wondering what
might have happened last night if she’d invited Isaac Sachs up. He’s due to meet her for
She wonders if she should have phoned Javier. You’re not his mother, you’re not his
guardian, you’re just a neighbor. She’s not convinced, but just as she didn’t know how to
ignore the boy she found sobbing by the garbage chute, just as she couldn’t not go down to the
super’s, borrow his keys, and pick through a garbage can for his precious stamp albums, now
she doesn’t know how to extricate herself. He hasn’t got anyone else, and eleven-year-olds
don’t do subtlety Anyway, who else have you got?
“You look like you got the weight of the world,” says Joe Napier.
“Joe. Have a seat.”“Don’t mind if I do. I’m the bearer of bad news. Isaac Sachs sends his sincere apologies, but
he’s got to stand you up.”
“Alberto Grimaldi flew out to our Three Mile Island site this morning—wooing a group of
Germans. Sidney Jessops was going along as the technical support, but Sid’s father had a heart
attack, and Isaac was the next choice.”
“Oh. Has he left already?”
“Afraid so. He’s”—Napier checks his watch—“over the Colorado Rockies. Breast-feeding a
hangover, shouldn’t wonder.”
Don’t let your disappointment show. “When’s he due back?”
“Tomorrow morning.”
“Oh.” Damn, damn, damn.
“I’m twice Isaac’s age and three times uglier, but Fay’s asked me to show you around the site.
She’s scheduled a few interviews with some people she thinks’ll interest you.”
“Joe, it’s too kind of you all to give me such generous slices of your weekends,” says Luisa.
Did you know Sachs was on the verge of defection? How? Unless Sachs was a plant? I’m out
of my depth here.
“I’m a lonely old man with too much time on my hands.”
“So R & D is called the Chicken Coop because the eggheads live there.” Luisa jots in her
notebook, smiling, as Joe Napier holds open the control-room door two hours later. “What do
you call the reactor building?”
A gum-chewing technician calls out: “Home of the Brave.”
Joe’s expression says funny. “That’s definitely off the record.”
“Has Joe told you what we call the security wing?” The controller grins.
Luisa shakes her head.
“Planet of the Apes.” He turns to Napier. “Introduce your guest, Joe.”
“Carlo Böhn, Luisa Rey Luisa’s a reporter, Carlo’s a chief technician. Stick around and you’ll
hear plenty of other names for him.”
“Let me show you around my little empire, if Joe’ll give you up for five minutes.”
Napier watches Luisa as Böhn explains the fluorescent-lit chamber of panels and gauges.
Underlings check printouts, frown at dials, tick clipboards. Böhn flirts with her, catches
Napier’s eye, when Luisa’s back is turned, and mimes melon-breasts; Napier shakes his sober
head. Milly would have clucked over you, he thinks. Had you over for dinner, fed you way too
much, and nagged you on what you need to be nagged about. He recalls Luisa as a precocious
little six-year-old. Must be two decades since I saw you at the last Tenth Precinct Station
reunion. Of all the professions that lippy little girl could have entered, of all the reporters who
could have caught the scent of Sixsmith’s death, why Lester Rey’s daughter? Why so soon
before I retire? Who dreamed up this sick joke? The city? Napier could cry.
34Fay Li searches Luisa Rey’s room swiftly and adeptly as the sun sets. She checks inside the
toilet cistern; under the mattress for slits; the carpets, for loose flaps; inside the minibar; in the
closet. The original might have been Xeroxed down to a quarter of its bulk. Li’s tame
receptionist reported Sachs and Luisa talking until the early hours. Sachs was removed this
morning, but he’s no idiot, he could have deposited it for her. She unscrews the telephone
mouthpiece and finds Napier’s favored transmitter, one disguised as a resistor. She probes the
recesses of Luisa’s overnight bag but finds no printed matter except Zen and the Art of
Motorcycle Maintenance. She flicks through the reporter’s notepad on the desk, but Luisa’s
encrypted shorthand doesn’t reveal much.
Fay Li wonders if she’s wasting her time. Wasting your time? Mexxon Oil upped their offer to
one hundred thousand dollars for the Sixsmith Report. And if they’re serious about a hundred
thousand, they’ll be serious about a million. For discrediting the entire atomic energy
program into an adolescent grave, a million is a snip. So keep searching.
The phone buzzes four times: a warning that Luisa Rey is in the lobby, waiting for the elevator.
Li ensures nothing is amiss and leaves, taking the stairs down. After ten minutes she rings up
to Luisa from the front desk. “Hi, Luisa, it’s Fay. Been back long?”
“Just long enough for a quick shower.”
“Productive afternoon, I hope?”
“Very much so. I’ve got enough material for two or three pieces.”
“Terrific. Listen, unless you’ve got other plans, how about dinner at the golf club? Swannekke
lobster is the best this side of anywhere.”
“Quite a claim.”
“I’m not asking you to take my word for it.”
Crustacean shrapnel is piled high. Luisa and Fay Li dab their fingers in pots of lemon-scented
water, and Li’s eyebrow tells the waiter to remove the plates. “What a mess I’ve made.” Luisa
drops her napkin. “I’m the slob of the class, Fay You should open a finishing school for young
ladies in Switzerland.”
“That’s not how most people in Seaboard Village see me. Did anyone tell you my nickname?
No? Mr. Li.”
Luisa isn’t sure what response is expected. “A little context might help.”
“My first week on the job, I’m up in the canteen, fixing myself a coffee. This engineer comes
up, tells me he’s got a problem of a mechanical nature, and asks if I can help. His buddies are
sniggering in the background. I say, ‘I doubt it.’ The guy says, ‘Sure you can help.’ He wants
me to oil his bolt and relieve the excess pressure on his nuts.”
“This engineer was how old? Thirteen?”
“Forty married, two kids. So his buddies are snorting with laughter now. What would you do?
Dash off some witty put-down line, let ’em know you’re riled? Slap him, get labeled
hysterical? Besides, creeps like that enjoy being slapped. Do nothing? So any man on site can
say shit like that to you with impunity?”
“An official complaint?”
“Prove that women run to senior men when the going gets tough?”“So what did you do?”
“Had him transferred to our Kansas plant. Middle of nowhere, middle of January. I pity his
wife, but she married him. Word gets around, I get dubbed Mr. Li. A real woman wouldn’t
have treated the poor guy so cruelly, no, a real woman would have taken his joke as a
compliment.” Fay Li smooths wrinkles in the tablecloth. “You run up against this crap in your
Luisa thinks of Nussbaum and Jakes. “All the time.”
“Maybe our daughters’ll live in a liberated world, but us, forget it. We’ve got to help ourselves,
Luisa. Men won’t do it for us.”
The journalist senses a shifting of the agenda.
Fay Li leans in. “I hope you’ll consider me your own insider here on Swannekke Island.”
Luisa probes with caution. “Journalists need insiders, Fay, so I’ll certainly bear it in mind. I
have to warn you, though, Spyglass doesn’t have the resources for the kind of remuneration
you may be—”
“Men invented money Women invented mutual aid.”
It’s a wise soul, thinks Luisa, who can distinguish traps from opportunities. “I’m not sure …
how a small-time reporter could ‘aid’ a woman of your standing, Fay.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself. Friendly journalists make valuable allies. If there comes a time
when you want to discuss any matters weightier than how many french fries the Swannekke
engineers consume per annum”—her voice sinks below the clinking of cutlery, cocktail-bar
piano music, and background laughter— “such as data on the HYDRA reactor as compiled by
Dr. Sixsmith, purely for example, I guarantee you’ll find me much more cooperative than you
Fay Li clicks her fingers, and the dessert trolley is already on its way. “Now, the lemon-andmelon sherbet, very low in calories, it cleanses the palate, ideal before coffee. Trust me on
The transformation is so total, Luisa almost wonders if she just heard what she just heard. “I’ll
trust you on this.”
“Glad we understand each other.”
Luisa wonders: What level of deceit is permissible in journalism? She remembers her father’s
answer, one afternoon in the hospital garden: Did I ever lie to get my story? Ten-mile-high
whoppers every day before breakfast, f it got me one inch closer to the truth.
A ringing phone flips Luisa’s dreams over and she lands in the moonlit room. She grabs the
lamp, the clock radio, and finally the receiver. For a moment she cannot remember her name or
what bed she is in. “Luisa?” offers a voice from the black gulf.
“Yeah, Luisa Rey.”
“Luisa, it’s me, Isaac, Isaac Sachs, calling long distance.”
“Isaac! Where are you? What time is it? Why—”
“Shush, shush, sorry I woke you, and sorry I was dragged away at the crack of dawn
yesterday. Listen, I’m in Philadelphia. It’s seven-thirty eastern, it’ll be getting light soon in
California. You still there, Luisa? I haven’t lost you?”
He’s afraid. “Yeah, Isaac, I’m listening.”
“Before I left Swannekke, I gave Garcia a present to give to you, just a dolce far niente.” He tries to make the sentence sound casual. “Understand?”
What in God’s name is he talking about?
“You hear me, Luisa? Garcia has a present for you.”
A more alert quarter of Luisa’s brain muscles in. Isaac Sachs left the Sixsmith Report in your
VW. You mentioned the trunk didn’t lock. He assumes we are being eavesdropped. “That’s
very kind of you, Isaac. Hope it didn’t cost you too much.”
“Worth every cent. Sorry to disturb your beauty sleep.”
“Have a safe flight, and see you soon. Dinner, maybe?”
“I’d love that. Well, got a plane to catch.”
“Safe flight.” Luisa hangs up.
Leave later, in an orderly fashion? Or get off Swannekke right now?
A quarter of a mile across the science village, Joe Napier’s window frames the hour-beforedawn night sky. A console of electronic monitoring equipment occupies half the room. From a
loudspeaker the sound of a dead phone line purrs. Napier rewinds a squawking reel-to-reel.
“Before I left Swannekke, I gave Garcia a present to give to you, just a dolce far niente….
Garcia? Garcia?
Napier grimaces at his cold coffee and opens a folder labeled “LR#2.” Colleagues, friends,
contacts … no Garcia in the index. Better warn Bill Smoke not to approach Luisa until I’ve had
the chance to speak with her. He flicks his lighter into life. Bill Smoke is a difficult man to find,
let alone warn. Napier draws acrid smoke down into his lungs. His telephone rings: it’s Bill
Smoke. “So, who the fuck’s this Garcia?”
“Don’t know, nothing on file. Listen, I don’t want you to—”
“It’s your fucking job to know, Napier.”
So, you’re addressing me like that now? “Hey! Hold your—”
“Hey yourself.” Bill Smoke hangs up.
Bad, bad, very bad. Joe grabs his jacket, snuffs his cigarette, leaves his quarters, and strides
across the site to Luisa’s hotel. A five-minute walk. He recalls the menace in Bill Smoke’s tone
and breaks into a run.
A swarm of déjà vu haunts Luisa as she stuffs her belongings into her overnight bag. Robert
Frobisher doing a dine and dash from another hotel. She takes the stairs down to the empty
lobby. The carpet is silent as snow. A radio whispers sweet nothings in the back office. Luisa
creeps to the main doors, hoping to leave with no explanation required. The doors are locked to
keep people out, not in, and soon Luisa is striding across the hotel lawn to the parking lot. A
predawn ocean breeze makes vague promises. The night sky inland is turning dark rose.
Nobody else is about, but as she nears her car, Luisa forces herself not to break into a run. Stay
calm, unhurried, and you can say you’re driving along the cape for the sunrise.At first glance the trunk is empty, but the carpet covers a bulge. Under the flap Luisa finds a
package wrapped in a black plastic trash bag. She removes a vanilla binder. She reads its cover
in the semilight: The HYDRAZero Reactor—An Operational Assessment Model— Project
Head Dr. Rufus Sixsmith—Unauthorized Possession Is a Federal Crime Under the Military &
Industrial Espionage Act 1971. Some five hundred pages of tables, flowcharts, mathematics,
and evidence. A sense of elation booms and echoes. Steady, this is only the end of the
Motion in the middle distance catches Luisa’s eye. A man. Luisa ducks behind Garcia. “Hey!
Luisa! Hold it!” Joe Napier! As if in a dream of keys and locks and doors, Luisa stows the
vanilla binder in its black trash bag under the passenger seat—Napier is running now, his
flashlight beam swishing the half darkness. The engine makes a lazy, leonine roar—the VW
reverses too fast. Joe Napier thumps into the back, yells, and Luisa glimpses him hopping like
a slapstick actor.
She does not stop to apologize.
Bill Smoke’s dusty black Chevy skids to a stop by the island checkpoint of Swannekke Bridge.
A string of lights dots the mainland across the straits. The guard recognizes the car and is
already by its driver’s window. “Good morning, sir!”
“Looking that way Richter, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Mr. Smoke.”
“I’m guessing Joe Napier has just called you and ordered you not to let an orange VW pass the
“That’s correct, Mr. Smoke.”
“I’m here to countermand that order, on Mr. Grimaldi’s personal authority You will raise the
barrier for the VW and let me follow. You’ll phone your buddy on the mainland checkpoint
now and tell him not to let anything through until he sees my car. When Mr. Napier gets here,
about fifteen minutes from now, you will tell him Alberto Grimaldi says, ‘Go back to bed.’
Understand, Richter?”
“Understood, Mr. Smoke.”
“You got married this spring, if memory serves?”
“You have an excellent memory, sir.”
“I do. Hoping to start a family?”
“My wife’s four months pregnant, Mr. Smoke.”
“A piece of advice, Richter, on how to succeed in the security business. Would you like to hear
this piece of advice, son?”
“I would, sir.”
“The dumbest dog can sit and watch. What takes brains is knowing when to look away Am I
making sense to you, Richter?”
“You’re making absolute sense, Mr. Smoke.”
“Then your young family’s future is secure.”
Smoke reverses his car alongside the guardhouse and slumps low. Sixty seconds later, a
choking VW swerves around the headland. Luisa halts, rolls down her window, Richter
appears, and Smoke catches the words “family emergency.” Richter tells her to have a safe trip,
and the barrier rises.Bill Smoke puts his car into first, second. The sonic texture of the road surface changes as the
Chevy reaches the bridge. Third gear, fourth, pedal down. The clapped-out Beetle’s taillights
zoom up, fifty yards, thirty yards, ten … Smoke hasn’t switched his lights on. He swerves into
the empty oncoming lane, shifts into fifth gear, and draws alongside. Smoke smiles. She thinks
I’m Joe Napier. He yanks the wheel sharply, and metal screams as the Beetle is sandwiched
between his car and the bridge railing until the railing unzips from its concrete and the Beetle
lurches out into space.
Smoke slams the brakes. He gets out into the cool air and smells hot rubber. Back a ways, sixty
seventy feet down, a VWs front bumper vanishes into the hollow sea. If her back didn’t snap,
she’ll have drowned in three minutes. Bill Smoke inspects the damage to his car’s bodywork
and feels deflation. Anonymous, faceless homicides, he decides, lack the thrill of human
The American sun, cranked up to full volume, proclaims a new dawn.
One bright dusk, four, five, no, my God, six summers ago, I strolled along a Greenwich
avenue of mature chestnuts and mock oranges in a state of grace. Those Regency residences
number among London’s costliest properties, but should you ever inherit one, dear Reader, sell
it, don’t live in it. Houses like these secrete some dark sorcery that transforms their owners into
fruitcakes. One such victim, an ex-chief of Rhodesian police, had, on the evening in question,
written me a check as rotund as himself to edit and print his autobiography My state of grace
was thanks in part to this check, and in part to a 1983 Chablis from the Duruzoi vineyard, a
magic potion that dissolves our myriad tragedies into mere misunderstandings.
A trio of teenettes, dressed like Prostitute Barbie, approached, drift-netting the width of the
pavement. I stepped into the road to avoid collision. But as we drew level they tore wrappers
off their lurid ice lollies and just dropped them. My sense of well-being was utterly V-2’d. I
mean, we were level with a bin! Tim Cavendish the Disgusted Citizen exclaimed to the
offenders: “You know, you should pick those up.”
A snorted “Whatchyoo gonna do ’bou’ it?” glanced off my back.
Ruddy she-apes. “I have no intention of doing anything about it,” I remarked, over my
shoulder, “I merely said that you—”
My knees buckled and the pavement cracked my cheek, shaking loose an early memory of a
tricycle accident before pain erased everything but pain. A sharp knee squashed my face into
leaf mold. I tasted blood. My sixtysomething wrist was winched back through ninety degrees
of agony and my Ingersoll Solar was unclasped. I recall a pick ’n’ mix of obscenities ancient
and modern, but before my muggers could filch my wallet, the chimes of an ice-cream van
playing “The Girl from Ipanema” scattered my assailants, like vam-piresses the minute before
“And you didn’t report them? You dolt!” Madame X sprinkled synthetic sugar over her
breakfast bran the next morning. “Phone the police for Christ’s sake. What are you waiting for?
The trail’ll go cold.” Alas, I had already amplified the truth and told her my muggers were five
louts with swastikas shaved onto their skulls. How could I now file a report saying three prepubescent lollipop girls had bested me so effortlessly? The boys in blue would have choked
on their Penguin biscuits. No, my assault was not added to our nation’s wishfully fulfilled
crime statistics. Had my purloined Ingersoll not been a love present from a sunnier era of our
now-Arctic marriage, I would have kept mum about the entire incident.
Where was I?
Odd how the wrong stories pop into one’s head at my age.
It’s not odd, no, it’s ruddy scary I meant to begin this narrative with Dermot Hoggins. That’s
the problem with inking one’s memoirs in longhand. You can’t go changing what you’ve
already set down, not without botching things up even more.
Look, I was Dermot “Duster” Hoggins’s editor, not his shrink or his ruddy astrologer, so how
could I have known what lay in store for Sir Felix Finch on that infamous night? Sir Felix
Finch, Minister of Culture and El Supremo at the Trafalgar Review of Books, how he blazed
across the media sky, how visible he remains to the naked eye even now, twelve months later.
Tabloidoids read all about it across the front page; broadsheeters spilt their granola when Radio
4 reported who had fallen and how. That aviary of vultures and tits, “the columnists,” eulogized
the Lost King of Arts in tribute after twittering tribute.
I, by contrast, have maintained a dignified counsel until now. I should warn the busy reader,
however, that the after-dinner mint of Felix Finch is merely the aperitif of my own peripatetic
tribulations. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, if you will. Now that is a snappy title.
’Twas the Night of the Lemon Prize Awards, held in Jake’s Starlight Bar, grandly reopened
atop a Bayswater edifice with a rooftop garden thrown in for good measure. The whole ruddy
publishing food chain had taken to the air and roosted at Jake’s. The haunted writers, the
celebrity chefs, the suits, the goateed buyers, the malnourished booksellers, packs of hacks and
photographers who take “Drop dead!” to mean “Why, I’d love to!” Let me scotch that insidious
little rumor implying Dermot’s invitation was my doing, that, oh, yes, Timothy Cavendish
knew his author was lusting for a high-profile revenge, QED, the entire tragedy was a publicity
stunt. Tosh dreamt up by jealous rivals! No one ever owned up to sending Dermot Hoggins’s
invitation, and she is hardly likely to step forward now.
Anyway, the winner was announced, and we all know who got the fifty-K prize money I got
sloshed. Guy the Guy introduced me to a cocktail called “Ground Control to Major Tom.”
Time’s Arrow became Time’s Boomerang, and I lost count of all my majors. A jazz sextet
kicked off a rumba. I went onto the balcony for a breather and surveyed the hubbub from
without. Literary London at play put me in mind of Gibbon on the Age of the Antonines. “A
cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline
of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste.”
Dermot found me; bad news inexorably does. Let me reiterate, bumping into Pope Pius XIII
would have surprised me less. In fact, His Infallibility would have blended in better—my
malcontent author wore a banana suit over a chocolate shirt and a Ribena tie. I hardly need
remind the curious reader that Knuckle Sandwich was yet to take the book world by storm. It
was yet to enter a bookshop, in fact, except the sage John Sandoe’s of Chelsea, and those
hapless newsagents, once Jewish, then Sikh, now Eritrean, located in the Hoggins Bros.’ East
End parish. Indeed, it was matters of publicity and distribution that Dermot wished to discuss
on the roof garden.
I explained to him for the hundredth time how an author-partnership setup like Cavendish
Publishing simply cannot fritter away money on fancy catalogs and team-building go-karting
weekends for sales forces. I explained, yet again, that my authors derived fulfillment from
presenting their handsomely bound volumes to friends, to family, to posterity I explained, yet again, that the gangster-chic market was saturated; and that even Moby-Dick bombed in
Melville’s lifetime, though I did not deploy that particular verb. “It is a truly fabulous memoir,”
I assured him. “Give it time.”
Dermot, drunk, doleful, and deaf, looked over the railings. “All them chimneys. Long way
The menace, I trusted, was imaginary. “Quite.”
“Mum took me to Mary Poppins when I was a nipper. Chimney sweeps dancing on rooftops.
She watched it on video, too. Over and over. In her nursing home.”
“I remember when it came out. That dates me.”
“Here.” Dermot frowned and pointed into the bar through the French windows. “Who’s that?”
“Who’s who?”
“Him in the bow tie chatting up the tiara in the bin liner.”
“The presenter fellow, Felix … oh, Felix whatizzit?”
“Felix f*****g Finch! That c*** who shat on my book in his poncy f*****g mag?”
“It wasn’t your best review, but—”
“It was my only f*****g review!”
“It really didn’t read so badly—”
“Yeah? ‘None-hit wonders like Mr. Hoggins are the roadkills of modern letters.’ Notice how
people insert the ‘Mr.’ before sinking the blade in? ‘Mr. Hoggins should apologize to the trees
felled for his bloated “autobio-novel.” Four hundred vainglorious pages expire in an ending flat
and inane quite beyond belief ”
“Steady now, Dermot, nobody actually reads the Trafalgar.”
“ ’Scuse!” My author collared a waiter. “Heard of the Trafalgar Review of Books?”
“Why sure,” the East European waiter replied. “My entire faculty swears by the TRB, they’ve
got the smartest reviewers.”
Dermot flung his glass over the railing.
“Come now, what’s a reviewer?” I reasoned. “One who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never
wisely …”
The jazz sextet finished their number, and Dermot left my sentence dangling. I was drunk
enough to justify a taxi and was about to leave when a Cockney town crier soundalike silenced
the entire gathering: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury! Your attention, please!”
Saints preserve us, Dermot was clanging a couple of trays together. “We have an additional
award tonight, fellow book fairies!” he bellowed. Ignoring arch chuckles and “Oooooo!”s, he
produced an envelope from his jacket pocket, slit it open, and pretended to read: “Award for
Most Eminent Literary Critic.” His audience looked on, cockatooed, booed, or turned away in
embarrassment. “Competition was fierce, but the panel was unanimous in choosing His
Imperial Majesty of the Trafalgar Review of Books, Mr.—beg pudding, Sir—Felix Finch O, B,
and E, come—on—darn!”
Stirrers crowed. “Bravo, Felix! Bravo!” Finch wouldn’t have been a critic if he didn’t love
unearned attention. Doubtless he was already composing copy in his head for his Sunday
Times column, “A Finch About Town.” For his part, Dermot was all sincerity and smiles.
“What might my prize be, I wonder?” Finch smirked as the applause subsided. “A signed copy
of an unpulped Knuckle Sandwich? Can’t be many of those left!” Finch’s coterie chorused
hooty laughter, spurring on their commissar. “Or do I win a free flight to a South American
country with leaky extradition treaties?”
“Yeah, lovie”—Dermot winked—“a free flight is exactly what you won.”
My author grabbed Finch’s lapels, rolled backwards, sank his feet into Finch’s girth, and judopropelled the shorter-than-generally-realized media personality high into the night air! High
above the pansies lining the balcony railing.Finch’s shriek—his life—ended in crumpled metal, twelve floors down.
Someone’s drink poured onto the carpet.
Dermot “Duster” Hoggins brushed his lapels, leaned over the balcony, and yelled: “So who’s
expired in an ending flat and inane quite beyond belief now?”
The dumbstruck crowd parted as the murderer made his way to the nibblies table. Several
witnesses later recalled a dark halo. He selected a Belgian cracker adorned with Biscay
anchovies and parsley drizzled with sesame oil.
The crowd’s senses flooded back. Gagging noises, oh-my-Gods, and a stampede for the stairs.
The most frightful hullabaloo! My thoughts? Honestly? Horror. Assuredly. Shock? You bet.
Disbelief? Naturally Fear? Not really.
I will not deny a nascent sense of a silver lining to this tragic turn. My Haymarket office suite
housed ninety-five unsold shrink-wraps of Dermot Hoggins’s Knuckle Sandwich, impassioned
memoir of Britain’s soon to be most famous murderer. Frank Sprat—my stalwart printer in
Sevenoaks, to whom I owed so much money I had the poor man over a barrel—still had the
plates and was ready to roll at a moment’s notice.
Hardcovers, ladies and gentlemen.
Fourteen pounds ninety-nine pence a shot.
A taste of honey!
As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadow-ings, and tricksy devices;
they belong in the 1980s with MA.s in postmodernism and chaos theory I make no apology,
however, for (re)starting my own narrative with my version of that shocking affair. You see, it
paved my first good intention on the road to Hull, or rather Hull’s hinterland, where my ghastly
ordeal is fated to unfold. My fortune took the glorious turn I had foreseen after Felix Finch’s
Final Fling. On the wings of sweet, free publicity, my Knuckle Sandwich turkey soared up the
bestseller charts, where it roosted until poor Dermot was sentenced to fifteen of the best in
Wormwood Scrubs. The trial made the Nine O’Clock News at every turn. In death Sir Felix
changed from a smug-scented pomposity with a Stalinist grip on Arts Council money into, oh,
Britain’s best-loved arts guru since the last one.
On the steps of the Old Bailey, his widow told reporters fifteen years was “disgustingly
lenient,” and the very next day a “Duster Hoggins, Rot in Hell!” campaign was launched.
Dermot’s family counterattacked on chat shows, Finch’s offending review was pored over,
BBC2 commissioned a special documentary in which the lesbian who interviewed me edited
my witticisms wholly out of context. Who cared? The money pot bubbled away—no, it boiled
over and set the entire ruddy kitchen alight. Cavendish Publishing— Mrs. Latham and I, that is
—didn’t know what had hit us. We had to take on two of her nieces (part-time, of course, I
wasn’t getting clobbered for National Insurance). The original Knuckle Sandwich shrink-wraps
vanished within thirty-six hours, and Frank Sprat was reprinting on a near-monthly basis.
Nothing in my four decades in the publishing game had geared us for such success. Running
costs had always been recouped from author donations—not from actual ruddy sales! It
seemed almost unethical. Yet here I was with a bestseller of one-in-a-decade proportions on my
lists. People ask me, “Tim, how do you account for its runaway success?”
Knuckle Sandwich was actually a well-written, gutsy fictional memoir. Culture vultures
discussed its sociopolitical subtexts first on late-night shows, then on breakfast TV Neo-Nazis
bought it for its generous lashings of violence. Worcestershire housewives bought it because it
was a damn fine read. Homosexuals bought it out of tribal loyalty It shifted ninety thousand,
yes, ninety thousand copies in four months, and yes, I am still talking hardcover. The feature
film should be in production as I write. At the Frankfurt Book love-in I was feted by people who until then had never so much as paused to scrape me off their shoes. That odious label
“Vanity Publisher” became “Creative Financier.” Translation rights fell like territories in the
final round of Risk. The American publishers, glory glory Hallelujah, they loved the LimeyAristo-Gets- Comeuppance-from-Downtrodden-Gaelic-Son hook, and a transatlantic auction
skyrocketed the advance to giddy heights. I, yes, I, had exclusive rights to this platinum goose
with a bad case of the trots! Money entered my cavernously empty accounts like the North Sea
through a Dutch dike. My “personal banking consultant,” a spiv named Elliot McCluskie, sent
me a Christmas card photo of his Midwich Cuckoo offspring. The primates on the Groucho
Club door greeted me with a “Pleasant evening, Mr. Cavendish,” instead of an “Oy you got to
be signed in by a member!” When I announced that I would be handling the paperback release
myself, the Sundays’ book pages ran pieces depicting Cavendish Publishing as a dynamic,
white-hot player in a cloud of decrepit gas giants. I even made the FT
Was it any wonder Mrs. Latham and I were overstretched—just a smidge—on the
bookkeeping front?
Success intoxicates rookies in the blink of an eye. I got business cards printed up: CavendishRedux, Publishers of Cutting-Edge Fiction. Well, I thought, why not sell publications instead
of publication? Why not become the serious publisher that the world lauded me as?
Alackaday! Those dinky little cards were the red flag waved at the Bull of Fate. At the first
rumor that Tim Cavendish was flush, my saber-toothed meerkat creditors bounded into my
office. As ever, I left the gnostic algebra of what to pay whom and when to my priceless Mrs.
Latham. So it was, I was mentally and financially underprepared when my midnight callers
visited, nearly a year after the Felix Finch Night. I confess that since Madame X left me (my
cuckold was a dentist, I shall reveal the truth no matter how painful) Housekeeping Anarchy
had reigned o’er my Putney domicile (oh, very well, the bastard was a German), so my
porcelain throne has long been my de facto office seat. A decent Cognac sits under the ballgowned lavatory-roll cover, and I leave the door open so I can hear the kitchen radio.
The night in question, I had put aside my perpetual lavatory read, The Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire, because of all the manuscripts (inedible green tomatoes) submitted to
Cavendish-Redux, my new stable of champions. I suppose it was about eleven o’clock when I
heard my front door being interfered with. Skinhead munchkins mug-or-treating?
Cherry knockers? The wind?
Next thing I knew, the door flew in off its ruddy hinges! I was thinking al- Qaeda, I was
thinking ball lightning, but no. Down the hallway tramped what seemed like an entire rugby
team, though my intruders numbered only three. (You’ll notice, I am always attacked in threes.)
“Timothy,” pronounced the gargoyliest, “Cavendish, I presume. Caught with your cacks
“My business hours are eleven to two, gentlemen,” Bogart would have said, “with a three-hour
break for lunch. Kindly leave.” All I could do was blurt, “Oy! My door! My ruddy door!”
Thug Two lit a cigarette. “We visited Dermot today. He’s a bit frustrated. Who wouldn’t be?”
The pieces fell into place. I fell into pieces. “Dermot’s brothers!” (I’d read all about them in
Dermot’s book. Eddie, Mozza, Jarvis.)
Hot ash burnt my thigh, and I lost track of which face uttered what. It was a Francis Bacon
triptych come to life. “Knuckle Sandwich is doing nicely, by the looks of things.”
“Piles of it in the airport bookshops.”
“You must at least of suspected we’d come calling.”
“A man of your business acumen.”
The London Irish unnerve me at the best of times. “Boys, boys. Dermot signed a copyright-transfer contract. Look, look, it’s industry standard, I have a copy in my briefcase here …” I
did indeed have the document to hand. “Clause eighteen, about copyright … means Knuckle
Sandwich, legally, is … er …” It wasn’t easy to tell them this with my briefs around my ankles.
“Er, legally the property of Cavendish Publishing.”
Jarvis Hoggins scanned the contract for a moment but tore it up when it proved longer than his
concentration span. “Dermot signed this f*****g pants when his book was just a f*****g
“A present to our sick old mam, God rest her soul.”
“A souvenir of Dad’s heyday.”
“Dermot never signed no f*****g contract for the event of the f*****g season.”
“We paid your printer, Mr. Sprat, a little visit. He went through the economics for us.”
Contract confetti showered. Mozza was close enough for me to smell his dinner. “Quite a hill
of Hoggins Bros.’ cash you’ve raked in, it seems.”
“I’m sure we can agree on a, um, um, funds flowchart, which will—”
Eddie cut in: “Let’s make it three.”
I feigned a wince. “Three thousand pounds? Boys, I don’t think—”
“Don’t be a silly billy.” Mozza pinched my cheek. “Three—o’— clock. Tomorrow afternoon.
Your office.”
I had no choice. “Perhaps we might … er … moot a provisional sum to conclude this meeting,
as a basis for … ongoing negotiation.”
“Okeydokey What sum did we moot earlier, Mozza?”
“Fifty K sounded reasonable.”
My cry of pain was unfeigned. “Fifty thousand pounds?”
“For starters.”
My intestines bubbled, toiled and troubled. “Do you really think I keep that kind of money
lying around in shoe boxes?” I pitched my voice for Dirty Harry, but it was more Lisping
“I hope you keep it lying around somewhere, Grandpops.”
“No bollocks. No checks.”
“No promises. No deferments.”
“Old-fashioned money A shoe box will do fine.”
“Gentlemen, I’m happy to pay a negotiated consideration, but the law—”
Jarvis whistled through his teeth. “Will the law help a man of your years bounce back from
multiple spinal fractures, Timothy?”
Eddie: “Men of your age don’t bounce. They splat.”
I fought with all my might, but my sphincter was no longer my own and a cannonade fired off.
Amusement or condescension I could have borne, but my tormentors’ pity signified my abject
defeat. The toilet chain was pulled.
“Three o’clock.” Cavendish-Redux went down the pan. Out trooped the thugs, over my
prostrate door. Eddie turned for a last word. “Dermot did a nice little paragraph in his book. On
loan defaulters.”
I refer the curious reader to page 244 of Knuckle Sandwich, available from your local
bookshop. Not on a full stomach.
Outside my Haymarket office suite taxis inched and sprinted. Inside my inner sanctum, Mrs.
Latham’s Nefertiti earrings (a gift from me to mark her tenth year with Cavendish Publishing, I
found them in a British Museum Gift Shop bargain bin) jingled as she shook her head, no, no, no. “And I am telling you, Mr. Cavendish, that I cannot find you fifty thousand pounds by
three o’clock this afternoon. I cannot find you five thousand pounds. Every Knuckle Sandwich
penny has already been Hoovered up by long-standing debts.”
“Doesn’t anybody owe us money?”
“I always keep on top of the invoicing, Mr. Cavendish, do I not?”
Desperation makes me wheedle. “This is the age of ready credit!”
“This is the age of credit limits, Mr. Cavendish.”
I retired to my office, poured myself a whiskey, and slooshed down my dicky-ticker pills
before tracing Captain Cook’s last voyage on my antique globe. Mrs. Latham brought in the
mail and left without a word. Bills, junk, moral muggings from charity fundraisers, and a
package addressed “FAO The Visionary Editor of Knuckle Sandwich,” containing a MS titled
Half-Lives—lousy name for a work of fiction—and subtitled The First Luisa Rey Mystery.
Lousier and lousier. Its lady author, one dubiously named Hilary V Hush, began her covering
letter with the following: “When I was nine my mom took me to Lourdes to pray for my bedwetting to be cured. Imagine my surprise when not Saint Bernadette but Alain-Fournier
appeared in a vision that night.”
Nutcase ahoy. I threw the letter away into my “Urgent Business” tray and switched on my
spanking new fat-gigabyte computer for a game of Minesweeper. After getting blown up twice
I telephoned Sotheby’s to offer Charles Dickens’s own, original, authentic writing desk for
auction with a reserve price of sixty thousand. A charming evaluator named Kirpal Singh
commiserated that the novelist’s desk was already accounted for by the Dickens House
museum and hoped I’d not been fleeced too painfully I confess, I do lose track of my little
elaborations. Next I called Elliot McCluskie and asked after his delightful kiddies. “Fine, thank
you.” He asked after my delightful business. I asked for a loan of eighty thousand pounds. He
began with a thoughtful “Right …” I lowered my ceiling to sixty Elliot pointed out that my
performance-linked credit stream still had a twelve-month flow horizon before resizing could
be feasibly optioned. Oh, I miss the days when they’d laugh like a hyena, tell you to go to hell,
and hang up. I traced Magellan’s voyage across my globe and longed for a century when a
fresh beginning was no further than the next clipper out of Dept-ford. My pride already in
tatters, I gave Madame X a bell. She was having her A.M. soak. I explained the gravity of my
situation. She laughed like a hyena, told me to go to hell, and hung up. I spun my globe. I spun
my globe.
Mrs. Latham eyeballed me like a hawk watching a bunny as I stepped outside. “No, not a loan
shark, Mr. Cavendish. It just isn’t worth it.”
“Never fear, Mrs. Latham, I’m just going to pay a call on the one man in this world who
believes in me, fair weather or foul.” In the lift I reminded my reflection, “Blood is thicker than
water,” before spiking my palm on the spoke of my telescopic umbrella.
“Oh, Satan’s gonads, not you. Look, just get lost and leave us in peace.” My brother glared
across his swimming pool as I stepped down his patio. Denholme’s never swum in his pool, as
far as I know, but he does all the chlorinating and whatnot every week just the same, even in
blustery drizzle. He trawled for leaves with a big net on a pole. “I’m not lending you a ruddy
farthing until you pay back the last lot. Why must I forever be giving you handouts? No. Don’t
answer.” Denholme scooped a fistful of soggy leaves from the net. “Just get back in your taxi
and bugger off. I’ll only ask you nicely once.”
“How’s Georgette?” I brushed aphids off his shriveled rose petals.
“Georgette’s going bonkers surely and steadily, not that you ever evince an ounce of genuine
interest when you don’t want money.”I watched a worm return to soil and wished I was it. “Denny, I’ve had a minor run-in with the
wrong sort. If I can’t get my hands on sixty thousand pounds, I’m going to take an awful
“Get them to video it for us.”
“I’m not joking, Denholme.”
“Nor am I! So, you’re shoddy at being duplicitous. What of it? Why is this my problem?”
“We’re brothers! Don’t you have a conscience?”
“I sat on the board of a merchant bank for thirty years.”
An amputated sycamore tree shed once green foliage like desperate men shed once steadfast
resolutions. “Help, Denny. Please. Thirty grand would be a start.”
I had pushed too hard. “Damn it to hell, Tim, my bank crashed! We were bled dry by those
bloodsuckers at Lloyd’s! The days when I had that kind of spondulics at my beck and call are
gone, gone, gone! Our house is mortgaged, twice over! I’m the mighty fallen, you’re the
minuscule fallen. Anyway, you’ve got this ruddy book flying out of every bookshop in the
known world!” My face said what I had no words for. “Oh, Christ, you idiot. What’s the
repayment schedule?” I looked at my watch. “Three o’clock this afternoon.” “Forget it.”
Denholme put down his net. “File for bankruptcy. Reynard’ll do the papers for you, he’s a
good man. A hard bullet to bite, I should know, but it’ll get your creditors off your back. The
law is clear—”
“Law? The only experience my creditors have of the law is squatting over a can in an
overcrowded cell.” “Then go to ground.”
“These people are very, very well connected with the ground.” “Not beyond the M25 they
aren’t, I bet. Stay with friends.” Friends? I crossed off those to whom I owed money, the dead,
the disappeared-down-time’s-rabbit-hole, and I was left with …
Denholme made his final offer. “I can’t lend you money. I don’t have any. But I’m owed a
favor or two by a comfortable place where you could possibly lie low for a while.”
Temple of the Rat King. Ark of the Soot God. Sphincter of Hades. Yes, King’s Cross Station,
where, according to Knuckle Sandwich, a blow job costs only five quid—any of the furthestleft three cubicles in the men’s lavvy downstairs, twenty-four hours a day. I called Mrs.
Latham to explain I would be in Prague for a three-week meeting with Václav Havel, a lie
whose consequences stuck with me like herpes. Mrs. Latham wished me bon voyage. She
could handle the Hogginses. Mrs. Latham could handle the Ten Plagues of Egypt. I don’t
deserve her, I know it. I often wonder why she’s stayed at Cavendish Publishing. It isn’t for
what I pay her.
I navigated the array of ticket types on the ticket machine: Day Return with Railcard Off Peak,
Cheap Day Single Without Railcard on Peak, and on, and on, but which, oh, which do I need?
A menacing finger tapped my shoulder and I jumped a mile—it was only a little old lady
advising me that returns are cheaper than singles. I assumed she was doolally but, stone the
ruddy crows, ’twas so. I slid in a banknote with our monarch’s head up, then down, then front
first, then back first, but each time the machine spat it out.
So I joined the queue for a human ticket seller. Thirty-one people were ahead of me, yes, I
counted every one. The ticket sellers drifted in and out from their counters much as the fancy
took them. A looped advertisement on a screen urged me to invest in a stair-lift. Finally, finally,
my turn was up: “Hello, I need a ticket to Hull.”
The ticket woman toyed with her chunky ethnic rings. “Leaving when?”
“As soon as possible.”
“As in ‘today’?”“ ‘Today usually means ‘as soon as possible,’ yes.”
“I ain’t sellin’ you a ticket for today. That’s them winders over there. This winder is advance
tickets only.”
“But the red flashing sign told me to come to your counter.”
“Couldn’t have done. Move along, now. You’re holding up the queue.”
“No, that sign ruddy well did send me to this counter! I’ve been queuing for twenty minutes!”
She looked interested for the first time. “You want me to change the rules for your benefit?”
Anger sparked in Timothy Cavendish like forks in microwaves. “I want you to evolve
problem-solving intelligence and sell me a ticket to Hull!”
“I ain’t standing for being addressed in that tone.”
“I’m the ruddy customer! I won’t be addressed like that! Get me your ruddy supervisor!”
“I am my supervisor.”
Snarling an oath from an Icelandic saga, I reclaimed my place at the head of the queue.
“Oy!” yelled a punk rocker, with studs in his cranium. “There’s a fackin’ queue!”
Never apologize, advises Lloyd George. Say it again, only this time, ruder. “I know there’s a
‘fackin’ queue’! I already queued in it once and I am not going to queue again just because
Nina Simone over there won’t sell me a ruddy ticket!”
A colored yeti in a clip-on uniform swooped. “Wassa bovver?”
“This old man here reckons his colostomy bag entitles him to jump the queue,” said the
skinhead, “and make racist slurs about the lady of Afro-Caribbean extraction in the advancetravel window.”
I couldn’t believe I was hearing this.
“Look, matey”—the yeti addressed me with condescension reserved for the handicapped or
elderly—“we got queues in this country to keep things fair, see, and if you don’t like it you
should go back to where you come from, getit?”
“Do I look like a ruddy Egyptian? Do I? I know there’s a queue! How? Because I already
queued in this queue, so—”
“This gentleman claims you ain’t.”
“Him? Will he still be a ‘gentleman’ when he daubs Asylum Scrounger’ on your housingassociation flat?”
His eyeballs swelled, they really did. “The Transport Police can boot you off the premises, or
you can join this queue like a member of a civilized society Whichever is fine by me. Jumping
queues is not fine by me.”
“But if I queue all over again I’ll miss my connections!”
“Tough,” he enunciated, “titty!”
I appealed to the people behind that Sid Rotten look-alike. Maybe they had seen me in the
queue, maybe they hadn’t, but nobody met my eye. England has gone to the dogs, oh, the dogs,
the ruddy dogs.
Over an hour later London shunted itself southward, taking the Curse of the Brothers Hoggins
with it. Commuters, these hapless souls who enter a lottery of death twice daily on Britain’s
decrepit railways, packed the dirty train. Airplanes circled in holding patterns over Heathrow,
densely as gnats over a summer puddle. Too much matter in this ruddy city
Still. I felt the exhilaration of a journey begun, and I let my guard drop. A volume I once
published, True Recollections of a Northern Territories Magistrate, claims that shark victims
experience an anesthetic vision of floating away, all danger gone, into the Pacific blue, at the
very moment they are being minced in that funnel of teeth. I, Timothy Cavendish, was that
swimmer, watching London roll away, yes, you, you sly, toupeed quizmaster of a city you and your tenements of Somalians; viaducts of Kingdom Brunel; malls of casualized labor; strata of
soot-blitzed bricks and muddy bones of Doctors Dee, Crippen et al.; hot glass office buildings
where the blooms of youth harden into aged cacti like my penny-pinching brother.
Essex raised its ugly head. When I was a scholarship boy at the local grammar, son of a cityhall toiler on the make, this county was synonymous with liberty success, and Cambridge.
Now look at it. Shopping malls and housing estates pursue their creeping invasion of our
ancient land. A North Sea wind snatched frilly clouds in its teeth and scarpered off to the
Midlands. The countryside proper began at last. My mother had a cousin out here, her family
had a big house, I think they moved to Winnipeg for a better life. There! There, in the shadow
of that DIY warehouse, once stood a row of walnut trees where me and Pip Oakes—a
childhood chum who died aged thirteen under the wheels of an oil tanker—varnished a canoe
one summer and sailed it along the Say Sticklebacks in jars. There, right there, around that bend
we lit a fire and cooked beans and potatoes wrapped in silver foil! Come back, oh, come back!
Is one glimpse all I get? Hedgeless, featureless fields. Essex is Winnipeg, now. Stubble was
burnt, and the air tasted of crisp bacon sarnies. My thoughts flew off with other fairies, and we
were past Saffron Walden when the train juddered to a halt. “Um …,” said the intercom. “John,
is this on? John, what button do I press?” Cough. “SouthNet Trains regrets that this service
will make an unscheduled stop at the next station due to … a missing driver. This unscheduled
stop will continue for the duration that it takes to locate an appropriate driver. SouthNet Trains
assures you we are striving hard”—I clearly discerned a background snigger!—“to restore our
normal excellent standard of service.” Rail rage chain-reactioned down the compartments,
though in our age crimes are not committed by criminals conveniently at hand but by executive
pens far beyond the mob’s reach, back in London’s postmodern HQs of glass and steel. Half
the mob owns shares in what it would pound to atoms, anyway.
So there we sat. I wished I had brought something to read. At least I had a seat, and I wouldn’t
have given it up for Helen Keller. The evening was lemon blue. Trackside shadows grew
monolithic. Commuters sent calls to families on mobile phones. I wondered how that dodgy
Australian magistrate knew what flashed through the minds of the shark-eaten. Lucky express
trains with nonmiss-ing drivers shot past. I needed the loo, but it didn’t bear imagining. I
opened my briefcase for a bag of Werner’s toffees but came up with Half-Lives—The First
Luisa Rey Mystery. I leafed through its first few pages. It would be a better book if Hilary V
Hush weren’t so artsily-fartsily Clever. She had written it in neat little chap-teroids, doubtless
with one eye on the Hollywood screenplay. Static squealed in the speakers. “This is a
passenger announcement. SouthNet Trains regrets that as a suitable driver for this train cannot
be located we will proceed to Little Chesterford station, where a complimentary coach will
transport passengers on to Cambridge. Those able to are recommended to make alternative
travel arrangements, as the coach will not reach Little Chesterford station [how that name
chimed in my memory!] for … an unknown duration. Further details can be found on our
website.” The train crawled a mile of twilight. Bats and wind-borne rubbish overtook us. Who
was driving now if there wasn’t a driver?
Stop, shudder, doors open. The abler-bodied streamed off the train, over the footbridge, leaving
me and a couple of taxidermist’s castoffs to limp in their wake at quarter speed. I heaved
myself up the steps and paused for breath. There I was. Standing on the footbridge of Little
Chesterford station. Ye gods, of all the rural stations for a marooning. The bridle path to
Ursula’s old house still skirted the cornfield. Not much else did I recognize. The Sacred Barn
of the Longest Snog was now Essex’s Premier Fitness Club. Ursula had met me in her froggy
Citroën that night during reading week in our first term, right … on this triangle of gravel, here.
How bohemian, Young Tim had thought, to be met by a woman in a car. I was Tutankhamen
in my royal barge, rowed by Nubian slaves to the Temple of Sacrifice. Ursula drove me the few hundred yards to Dockery House, commissioned in Art Nouveau times by a Scandiwegian consul. We had the place to ourselves, while Mater and Pater were in Greece
holidaying with Lawrence Durrell, if memory serves. (“Memory Serves.” Duplicitous couplet.)
Four decades later the beams of headlights from executive cars in the station car park lit up a
freak plague of daddy longlegs, and one fugitive publishing gentleman in a flapping raincoat
striding around a field now lying fallow for EU subsidies. You would think a place the size of
England could easily hold all the happenings in one humble lifetime without much overlap—I
mean, it’s not ruddy Luxembourg we live in—but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old
tracks like figure skaters. Dockery House was still standing, isolated from its neighbors by a
privet fence. How opulent the building had felt after my own parents’ bland box of suburbia—
One day, I promised, I’m going to live in a house like this. Another promise I’ve broken; at
least that one was only to myself.
I skirted the edge of the property down an access road to a building site. A sign read: HAZLE
Upstairs at Dockery lights were on. I imagined a childless couple listening to a wireless. The
old stained-glass door had been replaced by something more burglarproof That reading week
I’d entered Dockery ready to peel off my shameful virginity but I’d been so in awe of my
Divine Cleopatra, so nervous, so eyeballed up on her father’s whiskey, so floppy with green
sap that, well, I’d rather draw a veil over the embarrassment of that night, even at forty years’
remove. Very well, forty-seven years’ remove. That same white-leafed oak had scratted at
Ursula’s window as I attempted to perform, long after I could decently pretend I was still
warming up. Ursula had a gramophone record of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto in
her bedroom, that room there, where the electric candle glows in the window.
To this day I cannot hear Rachmaninoff without flinching.
The odds of Ursula still living at Dockery House were zilch, I knew. Last I heard she was
running a PR office in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, I squeezed myself through the evergreen
hedge and pressed my nose up against the unlit, uncurtained dining room window, trying to
peer in. That autumn night long ago Ursula had served a blob of grilled cheese on a slice of
ham on a breast of chicken. Right there—right here. I could still taste it. I can still taste it as I
write these words.
The room was lit electric marigold, and in waltzed—backwards, luckily for me—a little witch
with red corkscrew curls. “Mummy!” I half-heard, half-lip-read through the glass. “Mummy!”
and in came Mummy, with the same corkscrew curls. This being proof enough for me that
Ursula’s family had long vacated the house, I backtracked into the shrubbery—but I turned
once more and resumed my spying because … well, because, ahem, je suis un homme
solitaire. Mummy was repairing a broken broomstick while the girl sat on the table swinging
her legs. An adult werewolf came in and removed his mask, and oddly, though not so oddly I
suppose, I recognized him—that current-affairs TV presenter, one of Felix Finch’s tribe.
Jeremy Someone, Heathcliff eyebrows, terrier manners, you know the chap. He took some
insulation tape from the Welsh dresser drawer and muscled in on the broomstick repair job.
Then Grandma entered this domestic frieze, and damn me once, damn me twice, damn me
always make it nice, ’twas Ursula. The Ursula. My Ursula.
Behold that spry, elderly lady! In my memory she hadn’t aged a day—what makeup artist had
savaged her dewy youth? (The same one who savaged yours, Timbo.) She spoke, and her
daughter and granddaughter giggled, yes, giggled, and I giggled too … What? What did she
say? Tell me the joke! She stuffed a red stocking with newspaper balls. A devil’s tail. She
attached it to her posterior with a safety pin, and a memory from a university Halloween Ball
cracked on the hard rim of my heart and the yolk dribbled out—shed dressed like a devilette then, too, shed put on red face paint, wed kissed all night, just kissed, and in the morning we
found a builders’ café that sold dirty mugs of strong, milky tea and enough eggs to fill, to kill,
the Swiss Army. Toast and hot canned tomatoes. HP Sauce. Be honest, Cavendish, was any
other breakfast in your life ever so delectable?
So drunk was I on nostalgia, I ordered myself to leave before I did anything stupid. A nasty
voice just a few feet away said this— “Don’t move a muscle or I’ll mackasser you and put you
in a stew!”
Shocked? Jet-assisted Vertical Ruddy Takeoff! Luckily my would-be butcherer was not a day
older than ten, and his chain saw’s teeth were cardboard, but his bloodied bandages were rather
effective. In a low voice, I told him so. He wrinkled his face at me. “Are you Grandma
Ursula’s friend?”
“Once upon a time, yes, I was.”
“What have you come to the party as? Where’s your costume?”
Time to leave. I edged back into the evergreen. “This is my costume.”
He picked his nose. “A dead man digged up from the churchyard?”
“Charmed, but no. I’ve come as the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“But it’s Halloween, not Christmas.”
“No!” I slapped my forehead. “Really?”
“Yeah …”
“Then I’m ten months late! This is terrible! I’d better get back before my absence is noticed—
and remarked upon!”
The boy did a cartoon kung-fu pose and waved his chain saw at me. “Not so fast, Green
Goblin! You’re a trespasser! I’m telling the police of you!”
War. “Tell-tale-tit, are you? Two can play at that game. If you tell on me, I’ll tell my friend the
Ghost of Christmas Future where your house is, and do you know what he’ll do to you?”
The wide-eyed shitletto shook his head, shaken and stirred.
“When your family is all tucked up asleep in your snug little beds, he’ll slide into your house
through the crack under the door and eat—your—puppy!” The venom in my bile duct pumped
fast. “He’ll leave its curly tail under your pillow and you’ll get blamed. Your little friends will
all scream, ‘Puppy slayer!’ whenever they see you coming. You’ll grow old and friendless and
die, alone, miserably, on Christmas morning half a century from now. So if I were you, I
wouldn’t breathe a word to anyone about seeing me.”
I pushed myself through the hedge before he could take it all in. As I was heading back to the
station along the pavement, the wind carried his sob: “But I don’t even have a puppy …”
I hid behind Private Eye in the health center’s Wellness Café, which was doing a fine trade
with us maroonees. I half-expected a furious Ursula to turn up with her grandchild and a local
bobby. Private lifeboats came to rescue the stockbrokers. Old Father Timothy offers this advice
to his younger readers, included for free in the price of this memoir: conduct your life in such a
way that, when your train breaks down in the eve of your years, you have a warm, dry car
driven by a loved one—or a hired one, it matters not—to take you home.
A venerable coach arrived three Scotches later. Venerable? Ruddy Edwardian. I had to endure
chatty students all the way to Cambridge. Boyfriend worries, sadistic lecturers, demonic
housemates, reality TV, strewth, I had no idea children of their age were so hyperactive. When
I finally reached Cambridge station, I looked for a telephone box to tell Aurora House not to
expect me until the following day, but the first two telephones were vandalized (in Cambridge,
I ask you!), and only when I got to the third did I look at the address and see that Denholme
had neglected to write the number. I found a hotel for commercial travelers next to a
launderette. I forget its name, but I knew from its reception that the place was a crock of cat
crap, and as usual my first impression was spot on. I was too ruddy whacked to shop around for something nicer, however, and my wallet was too starved. My room had high windows
with blinds I couldn’t lower because I am not twelve feet tall. The khaki pellets in the bathtub
were indeed mouse droppings, the shower knob came off in my hand, and the hot water was
tepid. I fumigated the room with cigar smoke and lay on my bed trying to recall the bedrooms
of all my lovers, in order, looking down the mucky telescope of time. Prince Rupert and the
Boys failed to stir. I felt strangely unconcerned with the idea of the Hoggins Bros. plundering
my flat back in Putney. Must be lean pickings compared to most of their heists, if Knuckle
Sandwich is anything to go by. A few nice first editions, but little else of value. My television
died the night George Bush II snatched the throne and I haven’t dared replace it. Madame X
took back her antiques and heirlooms. I ordered a triple Scotch from room service—damn me if
I’d share a bar with a cabal of salesmen boasting about boobs and bonuses. When my treble
whiskey finally came it was actually a stingy double, so I said so. The ferrety adolescent just
shrugged. No apology, just a shrug. I asked him to lower my blind, but he took one look and
huffed, “Can’t reach that!” I gave him a frosty “That will be all, then,” instead of a tip. He
broke wind as he left, poisonously I read more of Half-Lives but fell asleep just after Rufus
Sixsmith was found murdered. In a lucid dream I was looking after a little asylum-seeker boy
who begged for a go in one of those rides in the corners of supermarkets you put fifty p into. I
said, “Oh, all right,” but when the child climbed out he had turned into Nancy Reagan. How
could I explain that to his mother?
I woke up in darkness with a mouth like Super Glue. The Mighty Gibbon’s assessment of
history—“little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”—
ticker-taped by for no apparent reason. Timothy Cavendish’s time on Earth, in thirteen words. I
refought old arguments, then fought arguments that have never even existed. I smoked a cigar
until the high windows showed streaks of a watery dawn. I shaved my jowls. A pinched
Ulsterwoman downstairs served a choice of burnt or frozen toast with sachets of lipstickcolored jam and unsalted butter . I remembered Jake Balokowsky’s quip about Normandy:
Cornwall with something to eat.
Back at the station my woes began afresh when I tried to get a refund on yesterday’s disrupted
journey. The ticket-wallah, whose pimples bubbled as I watched, was as intractably dense as
his counterpart in King’s Cross. The corporation breeds them from the same stem cell. My
blood pressure neared its record. “What do you mean, yesterday’s ticket is now invalid? It’s
not my fault my ruddy train broke down!”
“Not our fault neither. SouthNet run the trains. We’re Ticket-Lords, see.”
“Then to whom do I complain?”
“Well, SouthNet Loco are owned by a holding company in Düs-seldorf who are owned by that
mobile-phone company in Finland, so you’d be best off trying someone in Helsinki. You
should thank your lucky stars it wasn’t a derailment. Get a lot of those, these days.”
Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound
of language is left, agog, in the starting cage. A feisty stagger was needed to reach the next train
before it left—only to find it had been canceled! But, “luckily,” the train before mine was so
late that it still hadn’t departed. All the seats were taken, and I had to squeeze into a three-inch
slot. I lost my balance when the train pulled away, but a human crumple zone buffered my fall.
We stayed like that, half fallen. The Diagonal People.
Cambridge outskirts are all science parks now. Ursula and I went punting below that quaint
bridge, where those Biotech Space Age cuboids now sit cloning humans for shady Koreans.
Oh, aging is ruddy unbearable! The I’s we were yearn to breathe the world’s air again, but can
they ever break out from these calcified cocoons? Oh, can they hell.Witchy trees bent before the enormous sky. Our train had made an unscheduled and
unexplained stop on a blasted heath, for how long, I do not recall. My watch was stuck in the
middle of last night. (I miss my Ingersoll, even today.) My fellow passengers’ features melted
into forms that were half familiar: an estate agent behind me, yacking on his mobile telephone, I
could swear he was my sixth-form hockey captain; the grim woman two seats ahead, reading A
Moveable Feast, isn’t she that Inland Revenue gorgon who gave me such a grilling a few years
Finally the couplings whimpered and the train limped off at a slow haul to another country
station whose flaky name board read “Adlestrop.” A voice with a bad cold announced:
“Centrallo Trains regrets that due to a braking-systems failure this train will make a brief stop at
this—sneeze—station. Passengers are directed to alight here … and wait for a substitute train.”
My fellow travelers gasped, groaned, swore, shook their heads. “Centrallo Trains apologizes
for any—sneeze—inconvenience this may cause, and assures you we are working hard to
restore our normal excellent standard of—huge sneeze—service. Gi’ us a tissue, John.”
Fact: rolling stock in this country is built in Hamburg or somewhere, and when the German
engineers test British-bound trains, they use imported lengths of our buggered, privatized
tracks because the decently maintained European rails won’t provide accurate testing
conditions. Who really won the ruddy war? I should have fled the Hogginses up the Great
North Road on a ruddy pogo stick.
I elbowed my way into the grubby café, bought a pie that tasted of shoe polish and a pot of tea
with cork crumbs floating in it, and eavesdropped on a pair of Shetland pony breeders.
Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led. Why have you given your life to
books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes
on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don’t,
will is pitted against will. “Admire me, for I am a metaphor.”
I groped my way to the ammonia-smelling gents’, where a joker had stolen the bulb. I had just
unzipped myself when a voice arose from the shadows. “Hey, mistah, got a light or sumfink?”
Steadying my cardiac arrest, I fumbled for my lighter. The flame conjured a Rastafarian in
Holbein embers, just a few inches away, a cigar held in his thick lips. “Fanks,” whispered my
black Virgil, inclining his head to bring the tip into the flame.
“You’re, erm, most welcome, quite,” I said.
His wide, flat nose twitched. “So, where you heading, man?”
My hand checked my wallet was still there. “Hull …” A witless fib ran wild. “To return a
novel. To a librarian who works there. A very famous poet. At the university It’s in my bag.
It’s called Half-Lives.” The Rastafarian’s cigar smelt of compost. I can never guess what
they’re really thinking. Not that I’ve ever really known any. I’m not a racialist, but I do believe
the ingredients in so-called melting pots take generations to melt. “Mistah,” the Rastafarian told
me, “you need”—and I flinched—“some o’ this.” I obeyed his offer and sucked on his turdthick cigar.
Ruddy hell! “What is this stuff?”
He made a noise like a didgeridoo at the root of his throat. “That don’t grow in Marlboro
Country” My head enlarged itself by a magnitude of many hundreds, Alice-style, and became a
multistory car park wherein dwelt a thousand and one operatic Citroëns. “My word, you can
say that again,” mouthed the Man Formerly Known as Tim Cavendish.
Next thing I remember, I was on the train again, wondering who had walled up my
compartment with moss-stained bricks. “We’re ready for you now, Mr. Cavendish,” a bald,
spectacled coot told me. Nobody was there, or anywhere. Only a cleaner, making his way down the vacant train, putting litter into a sack. I lowered myself onto the platform. The cold
sank its fangs into my exposed neck and frisked me for uninsulated patches. Back in King’s
Cross? No, this was wintriest Gdansk. In a panic I realized I didn’t have my bag and umbrella.
I climbed aboard and retrieved them from the luggage rack. My muscles seemed to have
atrophied in my sleep. Outside, a baggage cart passed, driven by a Modigliani. Where in hell
was this place?
“Yurrin Hulpal,” the Modigliani answered.
Arabic? My brain proposed the following: a Eurostar train had stopped at Adlestrop, I had
boarded and slept all the way to Istanbul Central. Addled brain. I needed a clear sign, in
Praise be, my journey was nearly over. When had I last been this far north? Never, that’s
when. I gulped cold air to stub out a sudden urge to throw up—that’s right, Tim, drink it down.
The offended stomach supplies pictures of the cause of its discomfort, and the Rastafarian’s
cigar flashed before me. The station was painted in all blacks. I rounded a corner and found
two luminous clock faces hung above the exit, but clocks in disagreement are worse than no
clock at all. No watcher at the gates wanted to see my exorbitantly priced ticket, and I felt
cheated. Out front a curb crawler prowled here, a window blinked there, music waxed and
waned from a pub across the bypass. “Spare change?” asked, no, demanded, no, accused, a
miserable dog in a blanket. His master’s nose, eyebrows, and lips were so pierced with
ironmongery that a powerful electromagnet would have shredded his face in a single pass.
What do these people do at airport metal detectors? “Got any change?” I saw myself as he saw
me, a frail old giffer in a friendless late city The dog rose, scenting vulnerability An invisible
guardian took my elbow and led me to a taxi rank.
The taxi seemed to have been going round the same roundabout for a miniature eternity A
howling singer on the radio strummed a song about how everything that dies someday comes
back. (Heaven forfend—remember the Monkey’s Paw!) The driver’s head was far, far too big
for his shoulders, he must have had that Elephant Man disease, but when he turned round I
made out his turban. He was bemoaning his clientele. “Always they say, ‘Bet it ain’t this cold
where you’re from, eh?’ and always I say, ‘Dead wrong, mate. You’ve obviously never visited
Manchester in February’ ”
“You do know the way to Aurora House, don’t you?” I asked, and the Sikh said, “Look,
we’ve arrived already” The narrow driveway ended at an imposing Edwardian residence of
indeterminate size. “Sick teen-squid Zachary.”
“I don’t know anyone of that name.”
He looked at me, puzzled, then repeated, “Sixteen—quid— exactly”
“Oh. Yes.” My wallet was not in my trouser pockets, or my jacket pocket. Or my shirt pocket.
Nor did it reappear in my trouser pockets. The awful truth smacked my face. “I’ve been ruddy
“I resent the insinuation. My taxi has a municipal meter.”
“No, you don’t understand, my wallet’s been stolen.”
“Oh, then I understand.” Good, he understands. “I understand very well!” The wrath of the
subcontinent swarmed in the dark. “You’re thinking, That curry muncher knows whose side
the fuzz’ll take.”
“Nonsense!” I protested. “Look, I’ve got coins, change, yes, a pocketful of change … here …
yes, thank God! Yes, I think I’ve got it …”
He counted his ducats. “Tip?”
“Take it.” I had emptied all the shrapnel into his other hand and scrambled outside, straight into
a ditch. From my accident-victim’s-eye view I saw the taxi speed away, and I suffered a disagreeable flashback to my Greenwich mugging. It wasn’t the watch or even the bruises or
the shock that had scarred me so. It was that I was a man who had once faced down and bested
a quartet of Arab ragamuffins in Aden, but in the girls’ eyes I was … old, merely old. Not
behaving the way an old man should—invisible, silent, and scared—was, itself, sufficient
I scaled the ramp up to the imposing glass doors. The reception area glowed grail gold. I
knocked, and a woman who could have been cast for the stage musical of Florence Nightingale
smiled at me. I felt like someone had waved a magic wand and said, “Cavendish, all your
troubles are over!”
Florence let me in. “Welcome to Aurora House, Mr. Cavendish!”
“Oh, thank you, thank you. Today has been too ruddy awful for words.”
An angel incarnate. “The main thing is you’ve arrived safely now.”
“Look, there is a slight fiscal embarrassment I should mention at this time. You see, on my way
“All you need to worry about now is getting a good night’s sleep. Everything is taken care of.
Just sign here and I can show you to your room. It’s a nice quiet one overlooking the garden.
You’ll love it.”
Moist-eyed with gratitude, I followed her to my sanctuary. The hotel was modern, spotless,
with very soft lighting in the sleepy corridors. I recognized aromas from my childhood but
couldn’t quite identify them. Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. My room was simple, its
sheets crisp and clean, with towels ready on the heated rail. “Will you be all right from now,
Mr. Cavendish?”
“Bliss, my dear.”
“Sweet dreams, then.” I knew they would be. I took a quick shower, slipped into my jimjams,
and cleaned my teeth. My bed was firm but comfy as beaches in Tahiti. The Hoggins Horrors
were east of the Horn, I was scot-free, and Denny, dearest Denholme, was footing my bill.
Brother in need, brother indeed. Sirens sang in my marshmallow pillows. In the morning life
would begin afresh, afresh, afresh. This time round I would do everything right.
“In the morning.” Fate is fond of booby-trapping those three little words. I awoke to discover a
not-so-young woman with a pageboy haircut rifling through my personal effects like a bargain
hunter. “What the ruddy hell are you doing in my room, you pilfering warty sow?” I halfroared, half-wheezed.
The female put down my jacket without guilt. “Because you are new I will not have you eat
soap powder. This time. Be warned. I do not stand for offensive language in Aurora House.
Not from anyone. And I never make idle threats, Mr. Cavendish. Never.”
A robber reprimanding his victim for bad language! “I’ll ruddy well talk to you how I ruddy
well like, you stinking ruddy thief! Make me eat soap powder? I’d like to see you try! Let’s call
Hotel Security! Let’s call the police! You ask about offensive language, and I’ll ask about
breaking, entry, and theft!”
She came over to my bed and slapped me hard across the chops.
I was so shocked I just fell back onto my pillow.
“A disappointing start. I am Mrs. Noakes. You do not wish to cross me.”
Was this some sort of a kinky S & M hotel? Had a madwoman broken into my room after
learning my name from the hotel register?
“Smoking is discouraged here. I will have to confiscate these cigars. The lighter is far too
dangerous for you to play with. And what, pray, are these?” She dangled my keys.
“Keys. What do you think they are?”“Keys go walkies! Let’s give them to Mrs. Judd for safekeeping, shall we?”
“Let’s not give them to anyone, you crazy dragon! You strike me! You rob me! What kind of
ruddy hotel hires thieves for chambermaids?”
The creature stuffed her booty into a little burglar’s bag. “No more valuables to be taken care
“Put those items back! Now! Or I’ll have your job, I swear it!”
“I’ll take that as a no. Breakfast is eight sharp. Boiled eggs with toast soldiers today None for
the tardy.”
I got dressed the moment she was gone, and looked for the phone. There wasn’t one. After a
very quick wash—my bathroom had been designed for disabled people, it was all rounded
edges and fitted with handrails—I hurried to Reception, determined to have due justice. I had
acquired a limp but was unsure how. I was lost. Baroque music lilted in identical chair-lined
corridors. A leprous gnome gripped my wrist and showed me a jar of hazelnut butter. “If you
want to take this home, I’ll jolly well tell you why I don’t.”
“You’ve mistaken me for someone else.” I scraped the creature’s hand off mine and passed
through a dining room area where the guests were seated in rows and waitresses were bringing
bowls in from the kitchen.
What was so odd?
The youngest guests were in their seventies. The oldest guests were three hundred plus. Was it
the week after the schools went back?
I had it. You probably spotted it pages ago, dear Reader.
Aurora House was a nursing home for the elderly
That ruddy brother of mine! This was his idea of a joke!
Mrs. Judd and her Oil of Olay smile were manning Reception. “Hello, Mr. Cavendish. Feeling
super this morning?”
“Yes. No. An absurd misunderstanding has occurred.”
“Is that a fact?”
“It most certainly is a fact. I checked in last night believing Aurora House was a hotel. My
brother made the booking, you see. But … oh, it’s his idea of a practical joke. Not in the least
bit funny His contemptible ruse only ‘worked’ because a Rastafarian gave me a puff of a
sinister cigar in Adlestrop, and also, the ruddy stem-cell twins who sold me my ticket here,
they wore me out so. But listen. You have a bigger problem closer to home—some demented
bitch called Noakes is running about the place impersonating a chambermaid. She’s probably
riddled with Alzheimer’s, but yowie, she’s got a slap on her. She stole my keys! Now, in a gogo bar in Phuket, that’d be par for the course, but in an old wrecks’ home in Hull? You’d get
closed down if I was an inspector, you know.”
Mrs. Judd’s smile was now battery acid.
“I want my keys back,” she made me say “Right away”
“Aurora House is your home now, Mr. Cavendish. Your signature authorizes us to apply
compliancy And I’d get out of the habit of referring to my sister in those tones.”
“Compliancy? Signature? Sister?”
“The custody document you signed last night. Your residency papers.”
“No, no, no. That was the hotel registry! Never mind, it’s all academic. I’ll be on my way after
breakfast. Make that before breakfast, I smelt the slops! My, this will make a heck of a dinnerparty story Once I’ve strangled my brother. Bill him, by the way Only I must insist on having
my keys returned. And you’d better call me a cab.”
“Most of our guests get cold feet on their first mornings.”
“My feet are quite warm, but I haven’t made myself clear. If you don’t—”
“Mr. Cavendish, why don’t you eat your breakfast first and—”“Keys!”
“We have your written permission to hold your valuables in the office safe.”
“Then I must speak with the management.”
“That would be my sister, Nurse Noakes.”
“No akes? Management?”
“Nurse Noakes.”
“Then I must speak with the board of governors, or the owner.”
“They would be me.”
“Look.” Gulliver and Lilliputians. “You’re breaking the ruddy … Anti-Incarceration Act, or
whatever it is.”
“You’ll find temper tantrums won’t help you at Aurora House.”
“Your telephone, please. I wish to call the police.”
“Residents aren’t permitted to—”
“I am not a ruddy resident! And since you won’t give me back my keys, I’ll be back later this
morning with one very pissed-off officer of the law.” I shoved the main door, but it shoved
back harder. Some ruddy security lock. I tried the fire door across the porch. Locked. Over
Mrs. Judd’s protests I smashed a release catch with a little hammer, the door opened, and I was
a free man. Ruddy hell, the cold smacked my face with an iron spade! Now I knew why
northerners go in for beards, woad, and body grease. I marched down the curving driveway
through worm-blasted rhododendrons, resisting a strong temptation to break into a run. I
haven’t run since the mid-seventies. I was level with a lawn mower contraption when a shaggy
giant in groundsman’s overalls rose from the earth like Ye Greene Knycht. He was removing
the remains of a hedgehog from its blades with his bloody hands. “Off somewhere?”
“You bet I am! To the land of the living.” I strode on. Leaves turned to soil beneath my feet.
Thus it is, trees eat themselves. I was disorientated to discover how the drive wound back to
the dining room annex. I had taken a bad turn. The Undead of Aurora House watched me
through the wall of glass. “Soylent Green is people!” I mocked their hollow stares, “Soylent
Green is made of people!” They looked puzzled—I am, alas, the Last of my Tribe. One of the
wrinklies tapped on the window and pointed behind me. I turned, and the ogre slung me over
his shoulder. My breath was squeezed out with his every stride. He stank of fertilizer. “I’ve
better things to do than this …”
“Then go and do them!” I struggled in vain to get him in a neck-lock, but I don’t think he even
noticed. So I used my superior powers of language to chain the villain: “You cruddy ruddy
rugger-bugger yob! This is assault! This is illegal confinement!”
He bear-hugged me several degrees tighter to silence me, and I am afraid I bit his ear. A
strategic mistake. In one powerful yank my trousers were pulled from my waist—was he going
to bugger me? What he did was even less pleasant. He laid me on the body of his mowing
machine, pinned me down with one hand, and caned me with a bamboo cane in the other. The
pain cracked across my unfleshy shanks, once, twice, again-again, again-again, again-again!
Christ, such pain!
I shouted, then cried, then whimpered for him to stop. Whack! Whack! Whack! Nurse Noakes
finally ordered the giant to desist. My buttocks were two giant wasp stings! The woman’s
voice hissed in my ear: “The world outside has no place for you. Aurora House is where you
live now. Is reality sinking in? Or shall I ask Mr. Withers here to go over things one more
“Tell her to go to hell,” warned my spirit, “or you’ll regret it later.”
“Tell her what she wants to hear,” shrieked my nervous system, “or you’ll regret it now.”
The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.I was sent to my room without breakfast. I plotted vengeance, litigation, and torture. I inspected
my cell. Door, locked from outside, no keyhole. Window that opened only six inches. Heavyduty sheets made of egg-carton fibers with plastic undersheet. Armchair, washable seat cover.
Moppable carpet. “Easy-wipe” wallpaper. “En suite” bathroom: soap, shampoo, flannel, ratty
towel, no window. Picture of cottage captioned: “A House is Made by Hands, but a Home is
Made by Hearts.” Prospects for breakout: piss-poor.
Still, I believed my confinement would not last until noon. One of several exits must open up.
The management would realize its mistake, apologize profusely, sack the Offending Noakes,
and beg me to take compensation in cash. Or, Denholme would learn his gag had backfired and
command my release. Or, the accountant would realize nobody was paying my bills and boot
me out. Or, Mrs. Latham would report me missing, my disappearance would feature on
Crimewatch UK, and the police would trace my whereabouts.
Around eleven the door was unlocked. I readied myself to reject apologies and go for the
jugular. A once stately woman sailed in. Seventy years old, eighty eighty-five, who knows
when they’re that old? A rickety greyhound in a blazer followed his mistress. “Good morning,”
began the woman. I stood, and did not offer my visitors a seat.
“I beg to differ.”
“My name is Gwendolin Bendincks.”
“Don’t blame me.”
Nonplussed, she took the armchair. “This”—she indicated the greyhound—“is Gordon
Warlock-Williams. Why don’t you take a seat? We head the Residents’ Committee.”
“Very nice for you, but since I am not a—”
“I had intended to introduce myself at breakfast, but the morning’s unpleasantness occurred
before we could take you under our wing.”
“All water under the bridge, now, Cavendish,” gruffed Gordon Warlock-Williams. “No one’ll
mention it again, boyo, rest assured.” Welsh, yes, he would have to be Welsh.
Mrs. Bendincks leant forward. “But understand this, Mr. Cavendish: boat rockers are not
welcome here.”
“Then expel me! I beg you!”
“Aurora House does not expel,” said the sanctimonious moo, “but you will be medicated, if
your behavior warrants it, for your own protection.”
Ominous, no? I had seen One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest with an extraordinarily talentless
but wealthy and widowed poetess whose collected works, Verses Wild & Wayward, I was
annotating but who was less widowed than initially claimed, alas. “Look, I’m sure you’re a
reasonable woman.” The oxymoron passed without comment. “So read my lips. I am not
supposed to be here. I checked into Aurora House believing it to be a hotel.”
“Ah, but we do understand, Mr. Cavendish!” Gwendolin Bendincks nodded.
“No you don’t!”
“Everyone’s visited by the Glum Family at first, but you’ll soon cheer up when you see how
your loved ones have acted in your best interests.”
“All my loved ones’ are dead or bonkers or at the BBC, except my prankster brother!” You can
see it, can’t you, dear Reader? I was a man in a horror B-movie asylum. The more I ranted and
raged, the more I proved that I was exactly where I should be.
“This is the best hotel you’ll ever stay in, boyo!” His teeth were biscuit colored. Were he a
horse, you couldn’t have given him away “A five-star one, look you. Meals get provided, all
your laundry is done. Activities laid on, from crochet to croquet. No confusing bills, no
youngsters joyriding in your motor. Aurora House is a ball! Just obey the regulations and stop
rubbing Nurse Noakes up the wrong way She’s not a cruel woman.”“ ‘Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.’ ” Warlock-Williams
looked at me as if I had spoken in tongues. “Solzhenitsyn.”
“Betwys y Coed was always good enough for Marjorie and me. But look you here! I felt just
the same in my first week. Barely spoke to a soul, eh, Mrs. Bendincks, a major sourpuss, eh?”
“A maximus sourpuss, Mr. Warlock-Williams!”
“But now I’m happy as a pig in clover! Eh?”
Mrs. Bendincks smiled, ’twas a ghastly sight. “We’re here to help you reorientate. Now, I
understand you were in publishing. Sadly”—she tapped her head—“Mrs. Birkin is less able to
record Residents’ Committee meeting minutes than she once was. A fine opportunity for you to
jolly well get involved!”
“I still am in publishing! Do I look like I should be here?” The silence was intolerable. “Oh, get
“Disappointed.” She gazed at the leaf-littered lawn, dotted with worm casts. “Aurora House is
your world now, Mr. Cavendish.” My head was cork and the corkscrew was Gwendolin
Bendincks. “Yes, you are in a Rest Home. The day has come. Your stay can be miserable or
pleasant. But your stay is permanent. Think on, Mr. Cavendish.” She knocked on the door.
Unseen forces let my tormentors exit but slammed it shut in my face.
I noticed that for the duration of the interview my flies had been wide open.
Behold your future, Cavendish the Younger. You will not apply for membership, but the tribe
of the elderly will claim you. Your present will not keep pace with the world’s. This slippage
will stretch your skin, sag your skeleton, erode your hair and memory, make your skin turn
opaque so your twitching organs and blue-cheese veins will be semivisible. You will venture
out only in daylight, avoiding weekends and school holidays. Language, too, will leave you
behind, betraying your tribal affiliations whenever you speak. On escalators, on trunk roads, in
supermarket aisles, the living will overtake you, incessantly. Elegant women will not see you.
Store detectives will not see you. Salespeople will not see you, unless they sell stair lifts or
fraudulent insurance policies. Only babies, cats, and drug addicts will acknowledge your
existence. So do not fritter away your days. Sooner than you fear, you will stand before a
mirror in a care home, look at your body, and think, E.T., locked in a ruddy cupboard for a
A sexless automaton brought lunch on a tray. I’m not being insulting, but I truly couldn’t tell if
she or he was a he or a she. It had a slight mustache but tiny breasts too. I thought about
knocking it out cold and making a Steve McQueen dash for liberty but I had no weapon except
a bar of soap and nothing to tie it up with except my belt.
Lunch was a tepid lamb chop. The potatoes were starch grenades. The canned carrots were
revolting because that is their nature. “Look,” I begged the automaton, “at least bring me some
Dijon mustard.” It showed no evidence of understanding. “Coarse grain, or medium. I’m not
fussy” She turned to go. “Wait! You—speak-ee— English?” She was gone. My dinner
outstared me.
My strategy had been wrong from square one. I had tried to shout my way out of this absurdity
but the institutionalized cannot do this. Slavers welcome the odd rebel to dress down before the
others. In all the prison literature I’ve read, from The Gulag Archipelago to An Evil Cradling to
Knuckle Sandwich, rights must be horse-traded and accrued with cunning. Prisoner resistance
merely justifies an ever-fiercer imprisonment in the minds of the imprisoners.
Now was the season for subterfuge. I should take copious notes for my eventual compensation
settlement. I should be courteous to the Black Noakes. But as I pushed cold peas onto my plastic fork, a chain of firecrackers exploded in my skull and the old world came to an abrupt
On behalf of my ministry, thank you for agreeing to this final interview. Please remember, this
isn’t an interrogation, or a trial. Your version of the truth is the only one that matters.
… Good. Ordinarily, I begin by asking prisoners to recall their earliest memories to provide a
context for corpocratic historians of the future. Fabricants have no earliest memories,
Archivist. One twenty-four-hour cycle in Papa Song’s is indistinguishable from any other.
Then why not describe this “cycle”?
If you wish. A server is woken at hour four-thirty by stimulin in the airflow, then yellow-up in
our dormroom. After a minute in the hy-giener and steamer, we put on fresh uniforms before
filing into the restaurant. Our seer and aides gather us around Papa’s Plinth for Matins, we
recite the Six Catechisms, then our beloved Logoman appears and delivers his Sermon. At hour
five we man our tellers around the Hub, ready for the elevator to bring the new day’s first
consumers. For the following nineteen hours we greet diners, input orders, tray food, vend
drinks, upstock condiments, wipe tables, and bin garbage. Vespers follows cleaning, then we
imbibe one Soapsac in the dormroom. That is the blueprint of every unvarying day
You have no rests?
Only purebloods are entitled to “rests,” Archivist. For fabricants, “rests” would be an act of
time theft. Until curfew at hour zero, every minute must be devoted to the service and
enrichment of Papa Song.
Do servers—unascended servers, I mean—never wonder about life outside your dome, or did
you believe your dinery was the whole cosmos? Oh, our intelligence is not so crude that we
cannot conceive of an outside. Remember, at Matins, Papa Song shows us pictures of Xultation
and Hawaii, and AdV instreams images of a cosmology beyond our servery Moreover, we
know both diners and the food we serve comes from a place not in the dome. But it is true, we
rarely wonder about life on the surface. Additionally, Soap contains amnesiads designed to
deaden curiosity
What about your sense of time? Of the future?
Papa Song announces the passing hours to the diners, so I noticed the time of day, dimly, yes.
Also we were aware of passing years by annual stars added to our collars, and by the Star Sermon on New Year’s Matins. We had only one long-term future: Xultation.
Could you describe this annual “Star Sermon” ceremony?
After Matins on First Day, Seer Rhee would pin a star on every server’s collar. The elevator
then took those lucky Twelvestarred sisters for conveyance to Papa Song’s Ark. For the xiters,
it is a momentous occasion: for the remainder, one of acute envy. Later, we saw smiling
Sonmis, Yoonas, Ma-Leu-Das, and Hwa-Soons on 3-D as they embarked for Hawaii, arrived
at Xultation, and finally were transformed into consumers with Soulrings. Our x-sisters praised
Papa Song’s kindnesses and xhorted us to repay our Investment diligently We marveled at their
boutiques, malls, dineries; jade seas, rose skies, wildflowers; lace, cottages, butterflies; though
we could not name these marvels.
I’d like to ask about the infamous Yoona~939.
I knew Yoona~939 better than any fabricant: some purebloods know more of her
neurochemical history than me, but perhaps these individuals will be named later. On my
awakening at Papa Song’s, Seer Rhee assigned me to Yoona~939’s teller. He believed it was
aesthetically pleasing to alternate stemtypes around the Hub. Yoona~939 was tenstarred that
year. She seemed aloof and sullen, so I regretted not being partnered with another Sonmi.
However, by my first tenthday I had come to learn her aloofness was in fact watchfulness. Her
sullenness hid a subtle dignity She decifered the orders of drunk customers, and warned me of
Seer Rhee’s ill-tempered inspections. In no small part it is thanks to Yoona~939 that I have
survived as long as I have.
This “subtle dignity” you mention—was it a result of her ascension?
Postgrad Boom-Sook’s research notes were so sparse I cannot be certain when Yoona~939’s
ascension was triggered, xactly However, I believe that ascension merely frees what Soap
represses, including the xpression of an innate personality possessed by all fabricants.
Popular wisdom has it that fabricants don’t have personalities.
This fallacy is propagated for the comfort of purebloods.
“Comfort”? How do you mean?
To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more
troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our
differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants
cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snow-flakes.
Then I stand corrected. When did Yoona~939’s deviances—perhaps I should say singularities
—first become apparent to you?
Ah, questions of when are difficult to answer in a world without calendars or real windows,
twelve floors underground. Perhaps around month six of my first year, I became aware of
Yoona~939’s irregular speech.
Irregular?Firstly, she spoke more: during offpeak moments at our teller; as we cleaned the consumers’
hygieners; even as we imbibed Soap in the dormroom. It amused us, even the stiff Ma-LeuDas. Secondly, Yoona’s speech grew more complex as the year aged. Orientation teaches us
the lexicon we need for our work, but Soap erases xtra words we acquire later. So to our ears,
Yoona’s sentences were filled with noises devoid of meaning. She sounded, in a word,
pureblood. Thirdly, Yoona took pleasure in humor: she hummed Papa’s Psalm in absurd
variations; in our dormroom, when aides were absent, she mimicked pureblood habits like
yawning, sneezing, or burping. Humor is the ovum of dissent, and the Juche should fear it.
In my xperience, fabricants have difficulties threading together an original sentence of five
words. How could Yoona~939—or you, for that matter—acquire verbal dexterity in such a
hermetic world, even with a rising IQ?
An ascending fabricant absorbs language, thirstily, in spite of am-nesiads. During my
ascension, I was often shocked to hear new words fly from my own mouth, gleaned from
consumers, Seer Rhee, AdV, and Papa Song himself. A dinery is not a hermetic world: every
prison has jailers and walls. Jailers are ducts and walls conduct.
A more metaphysical question … were you happy, back in those days?
Before my ascension, you mean? If, by happiness, you mean the absence of adversity I and all
fabricants are the happiest stratum in corpocracy as genomicists insist. However, if happiness
means the conquest of adversity or a sense of purpose, or the xercise of one’s will to power,
then of all Nea So Copros’s slaves we surely are the most miserable. I endured drudgery but
enjoy it no more than yourself.
Slaves, you say? Even infant consumers know, the very word slave is abolished throughout
Nea So Copros!
Corpocracy is built on slavery, whether or not the word is sanctioned. Archivist, I do not wish
to offend you, but is your youth dewdrugged or genuine? I am puzzled. Why has my case been
assigned to an apparently inxperienced corpocrat?
No offense taken, Sonmi. I am an xpedience—and yes, an undewdrugged xpedi-ence, I am still
in my twenties. The xecs at the Ministry of Unanimity insisted that you, as a heretic, had
nothing to offer corpocracy’s archives but sedition and blasphemy Genomicists, for whom you
are a holy grail, as you know, pulled levers on the Juche to have Rule 54.iii—the right to
archivism—enforced against Unanimity’s wishes, but they hadn’t reckoned on senior
archivists watching your trial and judging your case too hazardous to risk their reputations—
and pensions—on. Now, I’m only eighth-stratum at my uninfluential ministry, but when I
petitioned to orison your testimony, approval was granted before I had the chance to come to
my senses. My friends told me I was crazy.
So you are gambling your career on this interview?
… That is the truth of the matter, yes.
Your frankness is refreshing after so much duplicity
A duplicitous archivist wouldn’t be much use to future historians, in my view. Could you tell
me a little more about Seer Rhee? His journal weighed heavily against you at your trial. What
manner of seer was he?Poor Seer Rhee was corp man, to the bone, but long past the age when seers are promoted to
power. Like many of this dying corpocracy’s purebloods, he clung to the belief that hard work
and a blemishless record were enough to achieve status, so he curfewed many nights in the
dinery office to impress the corp hierarchy In sum: a whipman to his fabricants; a sycofant to
his upstrata, and courteous to his cuckolds.
His cuckolds?
Yes. Seer Rhee should be understood in the context of his wife. Mrs. Rhee had sold her child
quota early in their marriage, made shrewd investments, and used her husband as a dollarudder. According to his aides’ gossip, she spent most of our seer’s salary on facescaping.
Certainly, her seventy-plus years could pass for thirty Mrs. Rhee visited the dinery from time
to time to inspect the latest male aides, gossip added. Any who spurned her advances could
xpect a posting to bleakest Manchuria. But why she never used her apparent corp influence to
advance Seer Rhee’s career is a mystery I will not now live to see solved.
Yoona~939’s notoriety must have threatened the seer’s “blemishless record” severely,
wouldn’t you agree?
Certainly. A dinery server behaving like a pureblood attracts trouble; trouble attracts blame;
blame demands a scapegoat. When Seer Rhee noticed Yoona’s deviations from Catechism, he
bypassed destarring and requested a corp medic to xamine her for reorientation. This tactical
mistake xplains the seer’s lackluster career. Yoona~939 performed as genomed, and the
visiting medic gave her a clean bill. Seer Rhee was thenceforth unable to discipline Yoona
without implying criticism of a senior corp medic.
When did Yoona~939 first attempt to make you complicit in her crimes?
I suppose the first time was when she xplained a newfound word, secret, one slow hour at the
teller. The idea of knowing information no one else, not even Papa Song, knew was beyond
my grasp, so as we lay in our cots my teller-sister promised to show me what she could not
When I next woke it was not to the glare of yellow-up but to Yoona, shaking me, in the neardark. Our sisters lay dorming, immobile but for minute spasms. Yoona ordered me, like a seer,
to follow her. I protested, I was afraid. She told me not to be, she wished to show me the
meaning of secret, and led me into the dome. Its unfamiliar silence fritened me further: its
beloved reds and yellows were eerie grays and browns in the curfew lite. Seer Rhee’s office
door leaked thin lite. Yoona pushed it open.
Our seer lay slumped on his desk. Drool glued his chin to his sony, his eyelids remmed, and a
gurgle was trapped in his throat. Every tenthnite, Yoona told me, he would imbibe Soap and
sleep thru to yellow-up. As you know, Soap affects purebloods more powerfully than us, and
my sister kicked his unresponding body to prove the point. Yoona found my horror at this
blasphemy merely amusing. “Do what you like to him,” I remember her telling me. “He has
lived with fabricants for so long he is very nearly one of us.” Then she told me she would
show me a greater secret still. Yoona xtracted Rhee’s keys from his pocket and led me to the
dome’s north quarter. Between the elevator and the northeast hygiener, she told me to xamine
the wall. I saw nothing. “Look again,” Yoona urged, “look properly.” This time I saw a speck,
a tiny crack. Yoona inserted a key, and a rectangle in the dome wall swung inward. The dusty
darkness gave no clue. Yoona took my hand; I hesitated. If wandering around the dinery
during curfew was not a destarrable offense, entering unknown doorways surely was. But my sister’s will was stronger than mine. She pulled me through, shut the door behind us, and
whispered, “Now, dear sister Sonmi, you are inside a secret.”
A white blade sliced the black: a miraculous moving knife that gave form to the stuffy nothing.
I discerned a narrow storeroom, crammed with stacked seats, plastic plants, coats, fans, hats, a
burnt-out sun, many umbrellas; Yoona’s face, my hands. My heart beat fast. What is that
knife? I asked. “Only lite, from a flashlite,” answered Yoona. I asked, Is lite alive? Yoona
answered, “Perhaps lite is life, sister.” A consumer had left the flashlite on a seat in our quarter,
she xplained, but instead of giving it to our aide, Yoona had hidden it here. This confession
shocked me most of all, in a way
How so?
Catechism Three teaches that for servers to keep anything denies Papa Song’s love for us and
cheats His Investment. I wondered, did Yoona~939 still observe any Catechism? But
misgivings, though grave, were soon lost in the treasures Yoona showed me there: a box of
unpaired earrings, beads, tiaras. The xquisite sensation of dressing in pureblood clothes
overcame my fear of being discovered. Greatest of all, however, was a book, a picture book.
Not many of those around these days.
Indeed not. Yoona mistook it for a broken sony which showed the world outside. You must
imagine our awe as we looked at the grimy server serving three ugly sisters; seven stunted
fabricants carrying bizarre cutlery behind a shining girl; a house built of candy. Castles,
mirrors, dragons. Remember, I was ignorant of these words as a server, as I was the majority
of words I employ in this Testimony. Yoona told me AdV and 3-D show only a dull portion of
the world beyond the elevator: its full xtent encompassed wonders even beyond Xultation. So
many strangenesses in one curfew toxed my head. My sister said we must get back to our cots
before yellow-up but promised to take me back inside her secret, next time.
How many “next times” were there?
Ten, or fifteen, approx. In time, it was only during these visits to her secret room that
Yoona~939 became her animated self. Leafing through her book of outside, she voiced doubts
that shook even my own love of Papa Song and faith in corpocracy to the core.
What shapes did these doubts take?
Questions: How could Papa Song stand on His Plinth in Chongmyo Plaza Servery and stroll
Xultation’s beaches with our Souled sisters simultaneously? Why were fabricants born into
debt but purebloods not? Who decided Papa Song’s Investment took twelve years to repay?
Why not eleven? Six? One?
How did you respond to such blasphemous hubris?
I begged Yoona to stop, or at least to fake normalcy in the dinery I was a well-orientated server
in those days, you see, not the evildoer, the threat to civilization, I am now. Moreover, I was
scared of being destarred for failing to judas Yoona to Seer Rhee. I prayed to Papa Song to
heal my friend, but her deviances became more blatant, not less. Yoona watched AdV openly
as she wiped tables. Our sisters sensed her crimes and avoided her. One nite, Yoona told me
that she wanted to xit the dinery and never come back. She told me I should xit too: that
purebloods force fabricants to work in domes so they can enjoy the beautiful places her book showed, her “broken sony” without sharing them. In response, I recited Catechism Six, I told
her I could never commit such a wicked deviance against Papa Song and His Investment.
Yoona~939 reacted angrily. Yes, Archivist, an angry fabricant. She called me a fool and
coward, she said I was no better than those other clones.
Two un-Souled fabricants, fleeing their corp, unaided? Unanimity would round you up in five
But how could Yoona know that? Her “broken sony” promised a world of lost forests, folded
mountains, and labyrinthine hiding places. To mistake a book of fairy tales for Nea So Copros
may seem laughable to you, a pureblood, but perpetual encagement endows any mirage of
salvation with credibility Ascension creates a hunger sharp enough to consume the subject’s
sanity in time. In consumers, this state is termed chronic depression. Yoona had sunk to this
same condition by my first winter, when diners brushed snow off their nikes and we had to
mop the floors regularly. By then she had ceased communicating with me, so her isolation was
Are you saying mental illness triggered the Yoona~939 Atrocity?
I am, emphatically. Mental illness triggered by xperimental error.
Would you describe the events of that New Year’s Eve from your vantage point?
I was wiping tables on my quarter’s raised rim, so I had a clear view of the east. Ma-LeuDa~108 and Yoona~939 were manning our busy teller. A children’s party was in progress.
Balloons, streamers, and hats obscured the area around the elevator. Popsongs and noise of
five hundred–plus diners reverbed round the dome. Papa Song was boomeranging 3-D fireeclairs over the children’s heads: they passed thru their fingers and fluttered back to land on our
Logo-man’s snaky tongue. I saw Yoona~939 leave our teller, the precise moment you
understand, and I knew something terrible was going to happen.
She hadn’t told you of her escape plan?
As I said, she had ceased to acknowledge my xistence. But I do not believe she had a plan: I
believe she merely “snapped,” in pureblood terms. My sister proceeded, unhurriedly, out of our
quarter, toward the elevator. She was timing her approach. The aides were too busy to notice
her: Seer Rhee was in his office. Few diners noticed, or looked up from their sonys or AdV,
and why should they? When Yoona scooped up a boy in a sailor suit and headed for the
elevator, the purebloods who saw merely assumed she was a fabricant maid ordered by her
mistress to take her charge home.
Media reported that Yoona~939 stole the child to employ as a pureblood shield on the surface.
Media reported the “atrocity” xactly as Unanimity directed. Yoona carried the boy into the
elevator because somehow she had learned of that basic precaution corps take: elevators do not
function without a Soul onboard. The risk of being noticed aboard an elevator full of
consumers was too high, so Yoona believed her best hope lay in borrowing a child and using
his Soul to make an otherwise-empty elevator convey her to freedom.
You sound very sure of your thesis.If my xperiences do not give me the right to be sure, whose do? The events that followed, I
need not recount.
Nonetheless, please describe the Yoona~939 Atrocity, as you saw it.
Very well. The child’s mother saw her son in Yoona’s arms as the elevator doors closed. She
screamed: “A clone’s taken my boy!” A chain reaction of hysteria began. Trays were flung,
shakes spilled, sonys dropped. Some diners believed the earthquake cushioning had
malfunctioned and dived under the tables. An off-duty enforcer unholstered his colt, waded
into the heart of the turmoil, and bellowed for order. He fired a sonicshot, ill-advisedly in a
sealed space, causing many to believe terrorists were firing on consumers. I remember seeing
Seer Rhee emerge from his office, slip on a spilled drink, and vanish under a swell of
customers now stampeding for the elevator. Many were injured in this crush. Aide Cho was
yelling into his handsony I could not hear what. Rumors ricocheted around the dome: a Yoona
had kidnapped a boy, no, a baby no, a pureblood had kidnapped a Yoona; an enforcer had shot
a boy no, a fabricant had hit the seer whose nose was bleeding. All the while, Papa Song
surfed noodle waves on His Plinth. Then someone shouted that the elevator was descending,
and silence seized the dinery as quickly as panic had less than a minute before. The enforcer
shouted for space, crouched, and aimed at the doors. The crush of consumers cleared in an
instant. The elevator reached the dinery, and its doors opened.
The boy was quivering, balled into one corner. His sailor suit was no longer white. Perhaps my
last memory in the Litehouse will be Yoona~939’s body, turned into a pulp of bullet holes.
That image is burned into every pureblood memory, too, Sonmi. When I got home that nite my
dormmates were glued to the sony Half of Nea So Copros’s New Year Festivities were
canceled, the other half was decidedly muted. Media alternated footage from the in-dinery
nikon with the Chongmyo Plaza public order nikon, showing the passing enforcer neutralize
Yoona~939. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We were sure a Union terrorist had
facescaped herself to look like a server, for twisted propaganda purposes. When Unanimity
confirmed the fabricant was a genuine Yoona … we … I …
You felt the corpocratic world order had changed, irrevocably You vowed never to trust any
fabricant. You knew that Abolitionism was as dangerous and insidious a dogma as Unionism.
You supported the resultant Homeland Laws dictated by the Beloved Chairman,
All of those, yes. What happened down in your dinery, meanwhile?
Unanimity arrived in force to blip every diner’s Soul and to nikon eyewitnesses’ accounts as
the dome was evacuated. We cleaned the dinery and imbibed Soap without Vespers. The
following yellow-up, my sisters’ memories of Yoona~939’s killing remained largely intact.
That Matins, instead of the customary Starring Ceremony, Papa Song delivered His AntiUnion Sermon.
I still find it incredible that a Logoman told his fabricants about Union.
Such was the shock, the panic. Doubtless the Sermon’s primary goal was to show Media that
the Papa Song Corp had a damage control strategy in place. Papa Song’s upstrata lexicon that
Matins supports this theory. It was quite a performance.Would you recount what you remember for my orison?
Our Logoman’s head filled half the dome, so we seemed to stand inside his mind. His
clownish xpression was heavy with grief and rage, and his clown’s voice rang with despair.
The Hwa-Soons trembled, the aides looked awed, and Seer Rhee was pasty and sick. Papa
Song told us a gas called evil xists in the world; purebloods called terrorists breathe in this evil,
and this gas makes them hate all that is free, orderly, good, and corpocratic; a group of
terrorists called Union had caused yesterday’s atrocity by infecting one of our own sisters,
Yoona~939 of the Chongmyo Plaza Dinery, with evil; instead of judasing Union, Yoona~939
had let the evil take her into temptation and deviance; and were it not for the dedication of
Unanimity with whom Papa Song Corp has always fully cooperated, a consumer’s innocent
son would now be dead. The boy had survived, but diners’ trust in our beloved corp had been
wounded, grievously. The challenge before us, Papa Song concluded, was to work harder than
ever to earn back that trust.
Therefore: we must be vigilant against evil, every minute of every day. This new Catechism
was more important than all others. If we obeyed, our Papa would love us forever. If we failed
to obey, Papa would zerostar us year after year and we would never get to Xultation. Did we
My sisters’ understanding would have been hazy at best; our Logoman had used many words
we did not know. Nevertheless, cries of “Yes, Papa Song!” echoed around the Plinth.
“I cannot hear you!” our Logoman xhorted us.
“Yes, Papa Song!” every server in every dinery in corpocracy shouted, “Yes, Papa Song!”
As I said, quite a performance.
You said in your trial that Yoona~939 couldn’t have been a Union member. Do you still
maintain that position?
Yes. How and when could Union recruit her? Why would a Union-man risk the xposure? Of
what worth was a genomed server to a terrorist ring?
I’m puzzled. If amnesiads in Soap “nullify” memory, how come you can recall the events of
that time with such precision and clarity?
Because my own ascension had already begun. Even to a thoroughbred imbecile like BoomSook, the degradation of Yoona~939’s neurochemical stability was obvious, so another guinea
pig was being prepared. The amnesiads in my Soapsac were reduced, accordingly, and
ascension catalysts instreamed.
So … after the Sermon, New Year’s Day was business as usual?
Business, yes; usual, no. The Starring Ceremony was perfunctory. Two Twelvestarreds were
escorted into the elevator by Aide Ahn. These were replaced by two Kyelims. Yoona~939 was
replaced by a new Yoona. Seer Rhee inserted our new stars into our collars in grave silence;
applause was deemed inappropriate. Soon after, Media streamed in, flashing nikons and
besieging the office. Our seer could get them out only by first letting them nikon the new
Yoona lying in the elevator with a ~939 sticker on her collar, covered in tomato sauce. Later,
Unanimity medics xamined each of us in turn. I was fritened of incriminating myself, but only
my birthmark provoked any passing comment.
Your birthmark? I didn’t know fabricants have birthmarks.We do not, so mine always caused me embarrassment in the steamer.
Ma-Leu-Da~108 called it “Sonmi~451’s stain.”
Would you show it to my orison, just as a curio?
If you wish. Here, between my collarbone and shoulder blade.
Xtraordinary It looks like a comet, don’t you think?
Hae-Joo Im made xactly the same remark, curiously
Huh, well, coincidences happen. Did Seer Rhee retain his position?
Yes, but it brought the unlucky man little solace. He reminded his corp xecs how he had
“smelled deviance” on Yoona~939 months before, thus passing blame to the medic who
xamined her. Chongmyo Plaza profits soon returned to average levels: purebloods have short
memories where their stomachs are concerned. Kyelim~689 and Kyelim~889 were a further
attraction: as a newly created stemtype, they drew queues of fabricant spotters.
And it was around this time that you grew aware of your own ascension?
Correct. You wish me to describe the xperience? It mirrored Yoona~939’s, I now recognize.
Firstly, a voice spoke in my head. It alarmed me greatly, until I learned that no one else could
hear this voice, known to purebloods as “sentience.” Secondly, my language evolved: for
xample, if I meant to say good, my mouth substituted a finer-tuned word such as favorable,
pleasing, or correct. In a climate when purebloods thruout the Twelve Cities were reporting
fabricant deviations at the rate of thousands a week, this was a dangerous development, and I
sought to curtail it. Thirdly, my curiosity about all things grew acute: the “hunger” Yoona~939
had spoken of. I eavesdropped diners’ sonys, AdV, Boardmen’s speeches, anything, to learn.
I, too, yearned to see where the elevator led. Nor did the fact that two fabricants, working side
by side on the same teller in the same dinery both xperienced these radical mental changes
evade me. Lastly my sense of alienation grew. Amongst my sisters I alone understood our
xistence’s futility and drudgery. I even woke during curfew, but never entered the secret room,
or even dared move until yellow-up. Yoona’s doubts about Papa Song haunted me. Ah, I
envied my uncritical, unthinking sisters. But most of all, I was afraid.
How long did you have to endure that state?
Some months. Until the ninthnite of the last week of fourth-month, specifically. I woke during
curfew to a faint sound of breaking glass. My sisters were all dorming: only Seer Rhee was in
the dome at such an hour. Time passed. Curiosity defeated my fear, finally, and I opened the
dormroom door. Across the dome, our seer’s office was open. Rhee lay in lamplite, face flat
against the floor, his chair upended. I crossed the dinery. Blood leaked from his eyes and
nostrils, and a used Soapsac was crumpled on the desk. Seer did not have the color of the
Rhee was dead? An overdose?
Whatever the official verdict, the office stunk of Soap soporifix. A server usually imbibes three
milligrams: Rhee appeared to have taken a quarter-liter sac, so suicide seems a reasonable
conclusion. I faced a grand quandary. If I sonyd for a medic, perhaps I could save my seer’s life, but how to xplain my intervention? Healthy fabricants, as you know, never wake during
curfew. Bleak as the life of an ascending fabricant was, the prospect of reorientation was
You said you envied your unthinking, untroubled sisters.
That is not quite the same as wishing to be one. I returned to my
That decision didn’t cause you any guilt, later?
Not much: Rhee’s decision was his own. But I had a foreboding that the nite’s events were not
yet over, and sure enough, when yellow-up came, my sisters stayed in their cots. The air
carried no scent of stimulin, and no aide had reported for work. I discerned the sound of a sony
being used. Wondering if Seer Rhee had somehow recovered, I left the dormroom and looked
into the dome.
A man in a dark suit sat there. He had tubed himself a coffee and watched me watching him
across the dinery He spoke, finally. “Good morning, Sonmi~451. I hope you’re feeling better
today than Seer Rhee.”
He sounds like an enforcer.
The man introduced himself as Chang, a chauffeur. I apologized: I did not know the word. A
chauffeur, the soft-spoken visitor xplained, drives fords for xecs and Boardmen but sometimes
serves as a messenger, too. He, Mr. Chang, had a message for me, Sonmi~451, from his own
seer. This message was in fact a choice. I could leave the dinery now and repay my Investment
outside, or else stay where I was, wait for Unanimity and their DNA sniffers to come and
investigate the death of Seer Rhee, and be xposed as a Union spy.
Not much of a choice.
No. I had no possessions to pack or farewells to make. In the elevator, Mr. Chang pressed a
panel. As the doors closed on my old life, my only life, I could not begin to imagine what
waited above me.
My torso squashed my suddenly feeble legs: I was supported by Mr. Chang, who said every
inside fabricant xperiences the same nausea, the first time. Yoona~939 must have dropped the
boy as she underwent the same mechanical ascension in that same elevator. To dam the
unpleasantness, I found myself recalling scenes from Yoona’s broken sony: the cobweb
streams, gnarled towers, the unnamed wonders. As the elevator slowed, my torso seemed to
rise, dis-orientingly Mr. Chang announced, “Ground level,” and the doors opened on outside.
I almost envy you. Please, describe xactly what you saw.
Chongmyo Plaza, predawn. Cold! I had never known cold. How vast it seemed, yet the plaza
cannot be more than five hundred meters across. Around the feet of the Beloved Chairman,
consumers hurried; walkway sweepers droned; taxis buzzed riders; inching fords fumed;
crawling trashtrucks churned; thruways, eight lanes wide, lined by sunpoles; ducts rumbling
underfoot; neonized logos blaring; sirens, engines, circuitry, new lite of new intensities at new
angles.It must have been overwhelming.
Even the smells were new, after the dinery’s scented airflow. Kim-chi, fordfumes, sewage. A
running consumer missed me by a centimeter, shouted, “Watch where you’re standin’, you
democratin’ clone!” and was gone. My hair stirred in the breath of a giant, invisible fan, and
Mr. Chang xplained how the streets funnel the morning wind to high speeds. He steered me
across the walkway to a mirrored ford. Three young men admiring the vehicle disappeared as
we approached, and the rear door hissed open. The chauffeur ushered me inside and closed the
door. I crouched. A bearded passenger slouched in the roomy interior, working on his sony He
xuded authority Mr. Chang sat in front, and the ford edged into the traffic: I saw Papa Song’s
golden arches recede into a hundred other corp logos, and a new city of symbols slid by, most
entirely new. When the ford braked, I lost my balance, and the bearded man mumbled that no
one would object if I sat down. I apologized for not knowing the right Catechism here and
intoned, “My collar is Sonmi~451,” as taught in Orientation. The passenger just rubbed his red
eyes and asked Mr. Chang for a weather report. I do not recall what the chauffeur said, only
that the fordjams were bad, and the bearded man looking at his rolex and cursing the slowness.
Didn’t you ask where you were being taken?
Why ask a question whose answer would demand ten more questions? Remember, Archivist, I
had never seen an xterior, nor xperienced conveyance: yet there I was, thruwaying Nea So
Copros’s second biggest conurb. I was less a cross-zone tourist, more a time traveler from a
past century
The ford cleared the urban canopy near Moon Tower, and I saw my first dawn over the
Kangwon-Do Mountains. I cannot describe what I felt. The Immanent Chairman’s one true
sun, its molten lite, petro-clouds, His dome of sky. To my further astonishment, the bearded
passenger was dozing. Why did the entire conurb not grind to a halt and give praise in the face
of such ineluctable beauty?
What else caught your eye?
Oh, the greenness of green: back under the canopy, our ford slowed by a dew garden between
squattened buildings. Feathery, fronded, moss drenched, green. In the dinery the sole samples
of green were chlorophyll squares and diners’ clothes, so I assumed it was a precious, rare
substance. Therefore, the dew garden and its rainbows sleeving along the fordway astounded
me. East, dormblocks lined the thruway each adorned by the corpocratic flag, until the
waysides fell away and we passed over a wide, winding, ordure-brown strip empty of fords. I
summoned up courage to ask Mr. Chang what it might be. The passenger answered: “Han
River. Songsu Bridge.”
I could only ask, what were these things?
“Water, a thruway of water.” Tiredness and disappointment flattened his voice. “Oh, notch up
another wasted early morning, Chang.” I was confused by the difference between water in the
dinery and the river’s sludge. Mr. Chang indicated the low peak ahead. “Mount Taemosan,
Sonmi. Your new home.”
So you were taken to the University straight from Papa Song’s?
To reduce xperimental contamination, yes. The road upzigged thru woodland. Trees, their
incremental gymnastics and noisy silence, yes, and their greenness, still mesmerize me. Soon
we arrived on the plateau campus. Cuboid buildings clustered: young purebloods paced narrow
walkways where litter drifted and lichen yeasted. The ford coasted to a halt under a rain-stained, sun-cracked overhang. Mr. Chang led me into a lobby leaving the bearded passenger to
doze in the ford. Mount Taemosan’s high air tasted clean, but the lobby was grimed and unlit.
We paused at the foot of a double-helix staircase. This is an old-style elevator, Mr. Chang
xplained. “The university xercises students’ bodies as well as their minds.” So I battled gravity
for the first time, step by step, grasping the handrail. Two students descended the down-helix,
laughing at my clumsiness. One commented, “That specimen won’t be making a bid for
freedom anytime soon.” Mr. Chang warned me not to look over my shoulder; I did so,
foolishly, and vertigo tipped me over. Had my guide not caught me, I would have fallen.
It took several minutes to ascend to the sixth floor, the topmost. Here, a slitted corridor ended at
a door, slitely ajar, name-plated BOOM-SOOK KIM. Mr. Chang knocked, but no answer
“Wait in here for Mr. Kim,” the chauffeur told me. “Obey him as a seer.” I entered and turned
to ask Mr. Chang what work I should do, but the chauffeur had gone. I was quite alone for the
first time in my life.
What did you think of your new quarters?
Dirty Our dinery you see, was always spotless: the Catechisms preach cleanliness. Boom-Sook
Kim’s lab was, in contrast, a long gallery, rancid with pureblood male odor. Bins overflowed; a
crossbow target hung by the door; the walls were lined with lab benches, buried desks,
obsolete sonys, and sagging bookshelves. A framed kodak of a smiling boy and a dead,
bloodied snow leopard hung over the only desk to show evidence of use. A filthy window
overlooked a neglected courtyard where a mottled figure stood on a Plinth. I wondered if he
was my new Logoman, but he never stirred.
In a cramped anteroom I found a cot, a hygiener, and a sort of portable steam cleaner. When
was I to use it? What Catechisms governed my life in this place? A fly buzzed lazy figures of
eight. So ignorant was I of outside, I even wondered if the fly might be an aide and introduced
myself to it.
Had you never seen insects before?
Only rogue-gened roaches and dead ones: Papa Song’s aircon inflows insecticide, so if any
enter via the elevator, they die, instantly. The fly hit the window, over and over. I did not then
know windows open; indeed, I did not know what a window was.
Then I heard off-key singing; a popsong about Phnom Penh Girls. Moments later a student in
beach shorts, sandals, and silk weighed down by shoulder bags, kickboxed the door open.
Upon seeing me he groaned, “What in the name of Holy Corpocracy are you doing here?”
I bared my collar. “Sonmi~451, sir. Papa Song’s server from—”
“Shut up, shut up, I know what you are!” The young man had a froggish mouth and the hurt
eyes then in vogue. “But you’re not supposed to be here until fifthday! If those registry dildos
xpect me to cancel a five-star Taiwanese conference just because they can’t read calendars,
well, sorry, they can suck maggots in an ebola pit. I only came in to pick up my worksony and
discs. I’m not babysitting any xperimental clone still in uniform when I could be sinning
myself sticky in Taipei.”
The fly hit the window again; the student picked up a pamphlet and pushed past me. The whack
made me jump. He inspected the smear with a laugh of triumph. “Let that be a warning to you!
Nobody double-crosses Boom-Sook Kim! Now. Don’t touch anything, don’t go anywhere.
Soap’s in the boxfridge—thank Chairman they delivered your feed early. I’ll be back late on
sixthday If I don’t leave for the aeroport now I’ll miss my flite.” He went, then reappeared in
the doorway. “You can talk, can’t you?”I nodded.
“Thank Chairman! Fact—for every moronity there’s ten registry clone-bones somewhere
committing it as we speak.”
What … were you supposed to do for the next three days?
Xcept watch the rolex hand erode the hours, I had no idea. It was no major hardship: servers
are genomed for grueling nineteen-hour workdays. I passed idle hours wondering if Mrs. Rhee
was a grieving widow or a glad one. Would Aide Ahn or Aide Cho be promoted to Chongmyo
Plaza seer? Already, the dinery seemed impossibly distant. From the courtyard I heard pins and
needles of sound, from shrubs mobbing the Plinth. Thus I first encountered birds. An aero
overflew, and many hundreds of swallows poured upstream. For whom did they sing? Their
Logoman? The Beloved Chairman?
The sky curfewed, and the room darkened for my first nite on the surface. I felt lonely, but
nothing worse. Windows across the courtyard yellowed-up, showing labs like Boom-Sook’s,
housing young purebloods; neater offices, occupied by professors; busy corridors, vacant
ones. I did not see a single fabricant.
At midnite I felt toxed and imbibed a sac of Soap, lay in the cot, and wished Yoona~939 was
there to make sense of the day’s legion mysteries.
Did your second day outside provide any answers?
Some: but yet more surprises. The first stood across the anteroom from my cot as I awoke. A
pylonic man, over three meters tall and dressed in an orange zipsuit, was studying the
bookshelves. His face, neck, and hands were scalded red, burnt black, and patched pale, but he
did not seem to suffer pain. His collar confirmed he was a fabricant, but I could not guess his
stemtype: lips genomed out, ears protected by hornvalves, and a voice deeper than any I heard
before or since. “No stimulin here. You wake when you wake. Especially if your postgrad is as
lazy as Boom-Sook Kim. Xec postgrads are the worst. They have their asses wiped for them.
From kindergarten to euthanasium.” With a giant, two-thumbed hand, he indicated a blue
zipsuit half the size of his. “For you, little sister.” As I changed from my Papa Song’s uniform
into my new garment, I asked if he had been sent by a seer. “No seers, either,” said the burnt
giant. “Your postgrad and mine are friends. Boom-Sook called yesterday. Complained about
your unxpected delivery I wished to visit you pre-curfew. But Genome Surgery postgrads
work late. Unlike slackers here in Psychogenomics. I’m Wing~027 Let’s find out why you’re
Wing~027 sat on Boom-Sook’s desk and switched on the sony ignoring my protests that my
postgrad had forbidden me to touch it. Wing clicked the screenboard; Yoona~939 appeared.
Wing trailed his finger along the rows of words. “Let’s pray to the Immanent Chairman …
Boom-Sook doesn’t make that error again …”
I asked Wing, could he read?
Wing said if a randomly assembled pureblood can read, a well-designed fabricant should learn
with ease. Soon a Sonmi appeared on the sony: my collar, ~451, circled her neck. “Here,” said
Wing and read, slowly; In-Dormroom Cerebral Upsizing the Service Fabricant: A Feasibility
Case Study on Sonmi~4S1 by Boom-Sook Kim. “Why,” Wing muttered, “is a no-brainer xec
postgrad aiming so high?”
What sort of fabricant was Wing-oij? A militiaman?
No, a disasterman. He boasted he could operate in deadlands so infected or radioactive that purebloods perish there like bacteria in bleach; that his brain had only minor genomic
refinements; and that disastermen’s basic orientation provides a more thoro education than most
pureblood universities. Finally, he bared his hideously burnt forearm: “Show me a pureblood
who could stand this! My postgrad’s Ph.D. is tissue flameproofing.”
Wing~027’s xplanation of deadlands appalled me, but the disasterman anticipated their
approach with relish. The day when all Nea So Copros is deadlanded, he told me, will be the
day fabricants become the new purebloods. This sounded deviant, and besides, if these
deadlands were so widespread in the world, I asked, why had I not seen them from the ford?
Wing~027 asked me how big I believed the world to be. I was unsure but said I had been
driven all the way from Chongmyo Plaza to this mountain, so I must have seen most of it,
The giant told me to follow, but I hesitated: Boom-Sook had ordered me not to leave the room.
Wing~027 warned me, “Sonmi~451, you must create Catechisms of your own,” and slung me
over his shoulder, carried me along the slitted corridor, around a tite corner, and up a dusty
spiral staircase, where he fisted open a rusty door. Morning sunlite blinded, brisk winds
slapped, and airgrit stung my face. The disasterman set me down.
On the roof of the Psychogenomics Faculty I gripped the railing and gasped; six levels down
was a cactus garden, birds hunting insects in the needles; further down the mountain, a ford
park, half full; further, a sports track, circummed by a regiment of students; below that, a
consumer plaza; beyond that, woods, sloping down to the spilled, charred-and-neon conurb, hirises, dormblocks, the Han River, finally mountains lining the aeroscored sunrise. “A big
view,” I remember Wing’s soft, burnt voice. “But held against the whole world, Sonmi~451,
all you see is a chip of stone.”
My mind fumbled with such enormity and dropped it; how could I understand such a limitless
Wing replied, I needed intelligence; ascension would provide this. I needed time; Boom-Sook
Kim’s idleness would give me time. However, I also needed knowledge.
I asked, How is knowledge found?
“You must learn how to read, little sister,” said Wing~027
So Wing-oij, not Hae-Joo Im or Boardman Mephi, mentored you first?
That is not true, strictly. Our second meeting was our final one. The disasterman returned to
Boom-Sook’s lab an hour before curfew to give me an “unlost” sony preloaded with every
autodidact module in upstrata corpocracy schooling. He showed me its operation, then warned
me never to let a pureblood catch me gathering knowledge, for the sight scares them, and there
is nothing a scared pureblood will not do.
By Boom-Sook’s return from Taiwan on sixthday I had mastered the sony’s usage and
graduated from virtual elementary school. By sixthmonth I completed xec secondary school.
You look skeptical, Archivist, but remember what I said about ascendants’ hunger for
information. We are only what we know, and I wished to be much more than I was, sorely.
I didn’t mean to look skeptical, Sonmi. Your mind, speech, your … self, show your dedication
to learning. What confuses me is, why did Boom-Sook Kim give you so much time to study? An
xec heir, surely, was no covert Abolitionist? What about his Ph.D. xperiments on you?
Boom-Sook Kim’s concerns were not his Ph.D. but drinking, gambling, and his crossbow.
His father was an xec at Kwangju Ge-nomics lobbying for a boardmanship on the Juche until
his son made such an influential enemy. With such an upstrata father, study was a mere formality
But how was Boom-Sook planning to graduate?
By paying an academic agent to collate his thesis from the agent’s own sources. A common
practice. The ascension neurochemicals were preformulated for him, with yields and
conclusions. Boom-Sook himself could not have identified the biomolecular properties of
toothpaste. In nine months, my xperimental duties never xceeded cleaning his lab and preparing
his tea. Fresh data might cloud those he had bought and risk xposing him as a fraud, you see.
So during my postgrad’s long absences, I could study without risk of discovery.
Wasn’t Boom-Sook Kim’s tutor aware of this outrageous plagiarism?
Professors who value tenure do not muckrake the sons of future Juche Boardmen.
Did Boom-Sook never even talk to you … interact with you, in any way?
He addressed me like purebloods speak to a cat. It amused him to pose me questions he fancied
were incomprehensible. “Hey, ~451, is it worth azuring my teeth, d’you reckon, or is sapphire
just a passing fad this season?” He did not xpect cogent answers: I did not disabuse his
xpectations. My reply became so habitual, Boom-Sook nicknamed me I-Do-Not-KnowSir~451.
So for nine months nobody observed your skyrocketing sentience?
So I believed. Boom-Sook Kim’s only regular visitors were Min-Sic and Fang. Fang’s real
name was never used in my hearing. They bragged about their new suzukis and played poker,
and paid no attention to fabricants outside Huamdonggil comfort hives. Gil-Su Noon, BoomSook’s neighbor, a downstrata postgrad on scholarship aid, banged on the wall to complain
about the noise from time to time, but the three xecs banged back louder. I saw him only once
or twice.
What is “poker”?
A card game where abler liars take money off less able liars. Fang won thousands of credits
from Boom-Sook and Min-Sic’s Souls during their poker sessions. Other times, the three
students indulged in drugs, often Soap. On these occasions Boom-Sook told me to get out:
when toxed, he complained, clones disturbed him. I would go to the faculty roof, sit in the
water tank’s shade, and watch swifts hunt giant gnats until dark, when I knew the three
postgrads would be gone. Boom-Sook never bothered to lock his lab, you see.
Why was it that you never met Wing~027 again?
One humid afternoon, three weeks after my arrival at Taemosan, a knock on the door distracted
Boom-Sook from his facescaper catalog. Unxpected visitors were rare, as I have said. BoomSook said, “Enter!” and hid his catalog under Practical Genomics. My postgrad rarely glanced
at his texts, unlike me.
A wiry student poked the door open with his toe. “Boom-Boom,” he called my postgrad.
Boom-Sook sprang to attention, sat down, then slouched. “Hey, Hae-Joo”—he faked a casual
manner— “what’s up?”
The visitor was just passing to say hi, he claimed, but he accepted the offered chair. I learned Hae-Joo Im was Boom-Sook’s x-classmate but had been head-hunted by Taemosan’s
Unanimity faculty Boom-Sook told me to prepare tea while they discussed topics of no
importance. As I served the drink, Hae-Joo Im mentioned, “You’ll know about your friend
Min-Sic’s appalling afternoon by now?”
Boom-Sook denied Min-Sic was a “friend,” necessarily, then asked why his afternoon was
appalling. “His specimen, Wing~027, was burnt to bacon.” Min-Sic had mistaken a minus for a
plus on the label of a bottle of petro-alkali. My own postgrad smirked, giggled, snorted
“Hysterical!” and laughed. Hae-Joo then did an unusual action; he looked at me.
Why is that unusual?
Purebloods see us often but look at us rarely Much later, Hae-Joo admitted he was curious
about my response. Boom-Sook noticed nothing; he speculated about compensation claims by
the corp sponsoring Min-Sic’s research. In his own, solo research, Boom-Sook gloated, no
one cared if an xperimental fabricant or two “got dropped” along the path of scientific
Did you feel … well, what did you feel? Resentment? Grief?
Fury. I retreated to the anteroom because something about Hae-Joo Im made me cautious, but I
had never felt such fury Yoona~939 was worth twenty Boom-Sooks, and Wing~027 worth
twenty Min-Sics, by any measure. Because of an xec’s carelessness, my only friend on Mount
Taemosan was dead, and Boom-Sook viewed this murder as humorous. But fury forges will.
That day was the first step to my Declarations, to this prison cube, and to the Litehouse in a
few hours.
What happened to you over summer recess?
Boom-Sook should have deposited me in a holding dormroom, but my postgrad was so eager
to go hunt fabricant elk on Hokkaido in Eastern Korea that he forgot to do so, or assumed a
lesser strata drone would do it for him.
So one summer morning, I woke in a wholly deserted building. No echoes from well-trafficked
corridors, no time bell, no announcements; even aircons were turned off. From the roof, the
conurb fumed and trafficked as usual, and swarming aeros left vapor streaks across the sky,
but the campus was empty of students. Its ford parks were semivacant. Builders were
resurfacing the oval square in the hot sun. I checked the sony’s calendar and learned today was
the beginning of recess. I bolted the lab’s door and hid myself in the anteroom.
So you never set foot outside Boom-Sook’s lab in five weeks? Not once?
Not once. I dreaded separation from my sony you see. A security guard tested the lab door
every ninthnite. Sometimes I heard Gil-Su Noon in the adjacent lab. Otherwise, nothing. I kept
the blind lowered and the solars off at nite. I had enough Soap to last the duration.
But that’s fifty days of unbroken solitary confinement!
Fifty glorious days, Archivist. My mind traveled the length, breadth, and depth of our culture. I
devoured the twelve seminals: Jong Il’s Seven Dialects; Prime Chairman’s Founding of Nea So
Copros; Admiral Yeng’s History of the Skirmishes; you know the list. Indices in an uncensored Commentaries led me to pre-Skirmish thinkers. The library refused many downloads,
of course, but I succeeded with two Optimists translated from the Late English, Orwell and Huxley; and Washington’s Satires on Democracy.
And you were still Boom-Sook’s thesis specimen—putatively—when he returned for the second
Yes. My first autumn arrived. I made a secret collection of the flame-colored leaves that drifted
on the faculty roof. Autumn itself aged, and my leaves lost their colors. Nites became icy; then
even daylite hours frosted up. Boom-Sook dozed on the heated ondul most afternoons,
watching 3-D. He had lost a lot of dollars in dubious investments over the summer, and since
his father was refusing to pay his debts, my postgrad was prone to fits of temper. My only
defense against these tantrums was to act void.
Did it snow?
Ah, yes, snow. The first snows fell very late last year, not until twelfth-month. I sensed it
before I woke in the semidark. Snowflakes haloed the New Year fairies decorating the
courtyard windows: entrancing, Archivist, entrancing. Undergrowth beneath the neglected
statue in the courtyard drooped under the weight of snow, and the statue itself assumed a comic
majesty I could watch the snow fall from my previous prison cube, and I miss it here. Snow is
bruised lilac in half-lite: such pure solace.
You speak like an aesthete sometimes, Sonmi.
Perhaps those deprived of beauty perceive it most instinctively.
So it must be around now that Dr. Mephi enters the story?
Yes, Sextet Eve. It was snowing that nite, too. Boom-Sook, Min-Sic, and Fang burst in at hour
twenty approx, tox-flushed, ice on their nikes. I was in the anteroom and barely had time to
hide my sony I remember I was reading Plato’s Republic. Boom-Sook wore a mortarboard hat,
and Min-Sic hugged a basket of mint-scented orchids as big as himself. He threw them at me,
saying, “Petals for Spoony, Sponny Sonmi, whatever its name is …”
Fang rifled the cupboard where Boom-Sook kept his soju and tossed three bottles over his
shoulder, complaining that the brands were all dog piss. Min-Sic caught two, but a third
smashed on the floor, triggering relapses of laughter. “Clean it up, Cind’rella!” Boom-Sook
clapped his hands at me, then pacified Fang by saying hed open a bottle of the best stuff since
Sextet Recess came only once a year.
By the time I had swept up every glass shard, Min-Sic had found a pornslash disney on 3-D.
They watched it with xpert relish, bickering over its merits and realism, and drinking the fine
soju. Their drunkenness had a recklessness that nite, especially Fang’s. I retreated to the
anteroom, from where I heard Gil-Su Noon at the lab door, asking the revelers to be quieter. I
spied. Min-Sic mocked Gil-Su’s glasses, asking why his family couldn’t find the dollars to
correct his myopia. Boom-Sook told Gil-Su to crawl up his own cock if he wanted peace and
quiet when the civilized world was celebrating Sextet. When he had stopped laughing, Fang
spoke about getting his father to order a tax inspection on the Noon clan. Gil-Su Noon fumed
in the doorway until the three xecs pelted him away with plums and further derision.
Fang seems to have been the ringleader.
He was, yes. He chiseled open the fault lines in the others’ personalities. Doubtless he is
currently practicing law in one of the Twelve Capitals with great success. That nite he focused on riling Boom-Sook, by wagging the soju bottle at the kodak of the dead snow leopard and
asking how dopey the prey were genomed down for the tourists. Boom-Sook’s pride was
inflamed. The only animals he hunted, he retorted, were those with viciousness genomed up.
He and his brother had stalked the snow leopard for hours in Kath-mandu Valley before the
cornered animal leapt for his brother’s throat. Boom-Sook had a single shot. The bolt entered
the beast’s eye in midair. Hearing this, Fang and Min-Sic faked awe for a moment, then
collapsed in raucous laughter. Min-Sic thumped the floor, saying, “You are so full of shit,
Kim!” Fang peered closer at the kodak and remarked that it was poorly dijied.
Boom-Sook inked a face on a synthetic melon, solemnly wrote “Fang” on its brow, and
balanced the fruit on a stack of journals by the door. He took his crossbow from his desk,
walked to the far-end window, and took aim.
Fang protested: “No-no-no-no-no-no-no!” and objected that a melon would not rip the
marksman’s throat out if he missed. There was no pressure to make a clean hit. Fang then
beckoned me over to stand by the door.
I saw his intention, but Fang interrupted my appeal, warning that if I did not obey him, he
would put Min-Sic in charge of my Soap. Min-Sic’s grin wilted. Fang sank his nails into my
arm, led me over, put the mortarboard hat on my head, and placed the melon on the hat. “So,
Boom-Sook,” he teased, “reckon you’re such a hot-shit marksman now?”
Boom-Sook’s relationship with Fang was based on rivalry and loathing. He raised his
crossbow. I asked my postgrad to please stop. Boom-Sook ordered me not to move a muscle.
The bolt’s steel tip glinted. Dying in one of these boys’ dares would be futile and stupid, but
fabricants cannot dictate even the terms of their deaths. A twang and an airwhoosh later, the
cross-bolt crisped into melon pulp. The fruit rolled off the hat. Min-Sic applauded warmly,
hoping to thaw the situation. I was awash with relief.
However, Fang sniffed, “You hardly need laser guidance to hit a huge great melon. Anyway,
look”—he held the melon’s remains— “you only just clipped it. Surely a mango is a worthier
target for a hunter of your stature.”
Boom-Sook held out his crossbow to Fang, daring him to match his own skill: hit the mango
from fifteen paces.
“Done.” Fang took the crossbow. I protested, despairingly, but Boom-Sook told me to shut up.
He drew an eye on the mango. Fang counted his paces and loaded the bolt. Min-Sic warned his
friends that the paperwork on a dead xperimental specimen was hell. They ignored him. Fang
aimed for a long time. His hand trembled, slitely Suddenly, the mango exploded and juiced the
walls. My doubt that my ordeal was over was well founded. Fang blew on the crossbow.
“Melon at thirty paces, mango at fifteen. I’ll raise you a … plum, at ten.” He noted a plum was
still bigger than a snow leopard’s eye, but added that if Boom-Sook wanted to admit he was
indeed, as Min-Sic had said, full of shit and decline the challenge, they would consider the
sorry chapter closed, for a whole ten minutes. Boom-Sook just balanced the plum on my head,
gravely, and ordered me to hold very, very still. He counted his ten steps, turned, loaded, and
took aim. I guessed I had a 50 percent chance of being dead in fifteen seconds. Gil-Su banged
on the door again. Go away, I thought at him, No distractions now …
Boom-Sook’s jaw twitched as he cranked back the bow. The banging on the door grew more
insistent, just centimeters from my head. Fang blasted obscenities about Gil-Su’s genitals and
his mother. Boom-Sook’s knuckles whitened on his crossbow.
My head was whipcracked around: pain sank teeth into my ear. I was aware of the door flying
open behind me, then of xpressions of doom on my tormentors’ faces. Lastly, I noticed an
older man in the doorway, snow in his beard, out of breath, and thunderously angry.Boardman Mephi?
Yes, but let us be thoro: Unanimity Professor, architect of the Mer-ican Boat-People Solution,
holder of a Nea So Copros Medal for Eminence, monographist on Tu Fu and Li Po; Juche
Boardman Aloi Mephi. I paid him little notice at that time, however. Liquid trickled down my
neck and spine. When I dabbed my ear, pain seemed to electrocute the left side of my body. My
fingers came away shiny and scarlet.
Boom-Sook’s voice wobbled: “Boardman, we—” No help was offered from Fang or Min-Sic.
The Boardman pressed a crisp silk handkerchief against my ear, and told me to keep the
pressure steady. He took a handsony from an inner pocket. “Mr. Chang?” he spoke into it.
“First aid. Hurry, please.” Now I recognized the sleepy passenger who had accompanied me
from Chongmyo Plaza eight months before.
Next, my rescuer stared at the postgrads: they dared not meet his gaze. “Well, gentlemen, we
have made a very ominous start to the Year of the Snake.” Min-Sic and Fang would be notified
by the disciplinary board of major debits, he promised, and dismissed them. Both bowed and
hurried out. Min-Sic left his cloak steaming on the ondul but did not return. Boom-Sook
looked inconsolable. Boardman Mephi let the postgrad suffer for some seconds before asking,
“Are you planning to shoot at me with that thing, too?”
Boom-Sook Kim dropped the crossbow as if it were superheated. The Boardman looked
around the messy lab, sniffing at the neck of the soju bottle. The octopoid rapine on 3-D
distracted him. Boom-Sook fumbled with the remo, dropped it, picked it up, pressed stop,
aimed it the right way, pressed stop. Boardman Mephi spoke, finally He was now ready to hear
Boom-Sook’s xplanation of why he was using his faculty’s xperimental fabricant for crossbow
Yes, I’m curious to hear that, too.
Boom-Sook tried everything: he was inxcusably drunk for Sextet Eve; he had misprioritized,
ignored stress symptoms, chosen friends unwisely, gotten overzealous while disciplining his
specimen; it was all Fang’s fault. Then even he realized he had better shut up and wait for the
ax to fall.
Mr. Chang arrived with a medicube, sprayed my ear, dabbed coag, applied a patch, and gave
me my first friendly words since Wing~027 Boom-Sook asked if my ear would heal.
Boardman Mephi’s abrupt answer was that it was none of Boom-Sook’s business as his
doctorate was terminated. The x-postgrad blanked and whitened as he saw his future slide
Mr. Chang held my hand and informed me my earlobe was torn off but promised a medic
would replace it in the morning. I was too afraid of Boom-Sook’s recriminations to worry
about my ear, but Mr. Chang added we would now leave with Boardman Mephi for my new
That must have been very welcome news.
Yes, xcept for the loss of my sony How could I bring that along? No feasible plan came to
mind. I just nodded, hoping I could retrieve it during Sextet Recess. The spiral stairs took up
my attention. descents are more hazardous than ascents. In the lobby, Mr. Chang produced a
hooded cloak for me and a pair of icenikes. The boardman complimented Mr. Chang on the
latter’s choice of zebra-skin design. Mr. Chang answered, zebra skin was de rigueur in Lhasa’s
chicest streets this season.What reason did the Boardman give for your timely rescue?
None, as yet. He told me I was being transferred to the Unanimity Faculty on the western lip of
campus and apologized for letting “those three toxed xec tapeworms” play games with my life.
The weather had prevented a timelier intervention. I forget what well-oriented, humble reply I
The campus cloisters were festive with Sextet Eve crowds. Mr. Chang taught me to shuffle
thru granular ice to gain traction. Snowflakes settled on my eyelashes and nostrils. Snowball
fights ceasefired as Professor Mephi approached; combatants bowed. The sense of anonymity
afforded by my hood was delicious. Passing thru cloisters, I heard music. Not AdV or
popsong but naked, echoing waves of music. “A choir,” Boardman Mephi told me. “Corpocratic sapiens can be callous, petty and malign,” he said, “but higher things, too, thank
Chairman.” We listened for a minute. Looking up, I felt as if I was rushing upward.
Two enforcers guarding the Unanimity Faculty saluted and took our damp cloaks. This
building’s interior was as opulent as the Psychogenomics Faculty had been spartan. Carpeted
corridors were lined with Iljongian mirrors, urns of the Kings of Scilla, 3-Ds of Unanimity
notables. The elevator had a chandelier; its voice recited corpocratic Catechisms, but Boardman
Mephi told it to shut up, and to my surprise, it did. Once again, Mr. Chang held me steady as
the elevator sped, then slowed.
We xited into a spacious, sunken apartment from an upstrata lifestyle AdV A 3-D fire danced
in the central hearth, surrounded by hovering maglev furniture. Glass walls afforded a dizzying
view of the conurb by nite, obscured by the haze-brite snowfall. Paintings took up the inner
walls. I asked Mephi if this was his office.
“My office is one story up,” he replied. “These are your quarters.”
Before I could even xpress surprise, Mr. Chang suggested I invite my distinguished guest to sit
down. I begged Boardman Mephi’s pardon: I had never had a guest before, and my manners
lacked polish.
The maglev sofa swung under the distinguished man’s weight. His daughter-in-law, he said,
had redesigned my quarters with me in mind. The Rothko canvases, she hoped, I would find
meditative.“Molecule-true original originals,” he assured me. “I approved.Rothko paints how
the blind see.”
A bewildering evening—crossbolts one moment, art history the next …
Certainly. Next, the professor apologized for failing to recognize the xtent of my ascension on
our first meeting. “I assumed you were yet another semi-ascended xperiment, doomed to
mental disintegration in a week or two. If memory serves, I even dozed off—Mr. Chang, did I?
The truth now.” From his post by the elevator, Mr. Chang recalled that his master had rested
his eyes during the journey. Boardman Mephi smiled at his chauffeur’s tact. “You’re more than
likely wondering what you did to bring yourself to my attention, Sonmi~451.”
His question was a handshake: Come out, I know you’re in there. Or, I feared, a trap. Still with
a server’s wariness of acting too pure-blood, I feigned polite incomprehension. Mephi’s
xpression of complicity told me he understood. Taemosan University he said, generates 2
million–plus library download requests per semester. The vast majority are course texts and
related articles; the remainder relate to anything from real estate to stock prices, sportsfords to
steinways, yoga to caged birds. “The point is, Sonmi, it takes a reader of truly eclectic habits for
my friends the librarians to bother alerting me.” The professor switched on his handsony and
read from my own list of download requests. Sixthmonth 18th, Epic of Gilgamesh;
Seventhmonth 2nd, Ireneo Funes’s Remembrances; Ninthmonth 1st, Gibbon’s Decline and
Fall. Mephi, bathed in mauve sonyglow, looked proud. “Here we go … Tenthmonth 11th, a brazen-as-you-please cross-search for references to that cancer in our beloved body corpocratic, Union! Speaking as a Unanimityman, such a—could I call it lust’?—for creeds of
other worlds alerts us to the presence of an inner émigré. It is idiomatic in my field that such
émigrés make the finest Unanimity agents. I knew we had to meet.” He then xplained how he
had identified the sony’s inquisitive owner as Nun Hel-Kwon, a geothermist from blizzardprone Onsong … who had died two winters before in a skiing accident. Boardman Mephi
assigned a gifted graduate the old-fashioned detective’s task of tracing the thief. E-wave
surveillance located the sony in Boom-Sook Kim’s lab. Imagining Boom-Sook reading
Wittgenstein defied all credulity however, so Mephi’s trusted student had implanted a microeye in every sony in the room during curfew six weeks ago. “Next day we found our
dissident-manqué was no pureblood but, apparently, science’s first stabilized ascendant and
sister-server of the notorious Yoona~939. My work, Sonmi~451, can be taxing and hazardous,
but dull? Never!”
Denial was plainly pointless.
Indeed: Boardman Mephi was no Seer Rhee. In a way, my discovery was a relief. Many
criminals say the same. I sat and listened to his account of the interdepartmental squabbles that
broke out when he reported his findings. Old-school corpocrats wanted me euthanized as a
deviant; psychogenomicists wanted me to undergo cerebral vivisection; marketing wanted to go
public and claim me as Taemosan University’s own xperimental breakthru.
Obviously, none of them got their way.
No. Unanimity won a stopgap compromise: I could continue studying in my illusory free will
until a consensus of opinion could be reached. Boom-Sook’s crossbow, however, forced
Unanimity’s hand.
And what did Boardman Mephi intend to do with you now?
Frame a new compromise between those interests competing fora slice of me, then enforce it.
Billions of research dollars had been spent in corp labs, unsuccessfully, to achieve what,
simply, I was, what I am: a stable, ascended fabricant. To keep the ge-nomicists happy, an
array of vetted scientists would conduct cross-disciplinary tests on me. Mephi, dipping his
hands into the heart of the 3-D flames, promised these tests would not be onerous or painful, or
xceed three hours per day, five days out of ten. To win over the Taemosan Board, research
access would be auctioned: I would raise big dollars for my masters.
Did Sonmi~451’s interests enter this simultaneous equation?
To a degree, yes: Taemosan University would enroll me as a foundation student. I would also
have a Soul implanted in my collar so I could come and go on campus as I pleased. Boardman
Mephi even promised to mentor me when he was on campus. He withdrew his hand from the
fire and inspected his fingers. “All lite, no heat. Youngsters nowadays wouldn’t know a real
flame if their nikes were set alite.” He told me to call him Professor instead of Sir.
One thing I can’t work out. If Boom-Sook Kim was such a buffoon, how had he attained this
holy grail of psychogenomics—stable ascension?
Later, I asked Hae-Joo Im the same question. His xplanation ran: Boom-Sook’s thesis jockey
sourced his supply of psychogenomics theses from an obscure tech institute in Baikal. The original author of my x-postgrad’s work was a production zone immigrant named Yusouf
Suleiman. Xtremists were killing genomicists in Siberia at that time, and Suleiman and three of
his professors were blown up by a car bomb. Baikal being Baikal, Suleiman’s research
languished in obscurity for ten years until it was sold on. The agent liaised with contacts at
Papa Song Corp to instream Suleiman’s ascension neuro-formula to our Soap. Yoona~939
was the prime specimen; I was a modified backup. If all that sounds unlikely, Hae-Joo added, I
should remember that most of science’s holy grails are discovered by accident, in unxpected
And all the while Boom-Sook Kim was blissfully unaware of the furor his plagiarized Ph.D.
was causing?
Only an obdurate fool who never squeezed a pipette could remain unaware, but yes, BoomSook Kim was such a fool. Maybe that, too, was no accident.
How did you find your new regime in the Unanimity Faculty? How was it as a fab-ricant,
actually attending lectures?
As I was moved on Sextet Eve, I had six quiet days before the new regime began in earnest. I
walked around the icy campus only once: I am genomed to be comfortable in hot eateries, and
xposure to the Han Valley winter on Mount Taemosan burned my skin and lungs. On New
Year’s Day I awoke from curfew to discover two gifts: the battered old sony Wing~027 had
given me and a star for my collar, my third. I thought of my sisters, my x-sisters, thruout Nea
So Copros enjoying Starring Ceremonies. I wondered if I would one day depart for Xultation,
my Investment repaid. How I wished Yoona~939 could attend my first lecture on secondday
with me. I still miss her.
What was your first lecture?
Swanti’s Biomathematics; however, its real lesson was humiliation. I walked to the lecture hall
across dirty slush, hooded and unnoticed. But when I took off my cloak in the corridor, my
Sonmi features provoked surprise, then unease. In the lecture hall, my entry detonated resentful
It didn’t last. “Oy!” a boy yelled. “One hot ginseng, two dog-burgers!” and the entire theater
laughed. I am not genomed to blush, but my pulse rose. I took a seat in the second row,
occupied by girls. Their leader had emeralded teeth. “This is our row,” she said. “Go to the
back. You stink of mayo.” I obeyed, meekly A paper dart hit my face. “We don’t vend burgers
in your dinery fabricant,” someone called, “why’re you taking up space in our lecture?” I was
about to leave when spidery Dr. Chu’an tripped onto the stage and dropped her notes. I did my
best to concentrate on the lecture that followed, but after a while, Dr. Chu’an’s eyes roamed her
audience, saw me; she stopped midsentence. The audience, laughing, realized why. Dr. Chu’an
forced herself to continue. I forced myself to stay but lacked the courage to ask questions at the
end. Outside I endured a barrage of aggressive snideries.
Did Professor Mephi know about the students’ unfriendliness?
I think so. At our seminar, the professor asked if my lecture had been fruitful; I chose the word
informative and asked why pure-bloods despised me so. He replied, “What if the differences
between social strata stem not from genomics or inherent xcellence or even dollars, but merely
differences in knowledge? Would this not mean the whole Pyramid is built on shifting sands?”I speculated such a suggestion could be seen as a serious de-viancy
Mephi seemed delited. “Try this for deviancy fabricants are mirrors held up to purebloods’
consciences; what purebloods see reflected there sickens them. So they blame you for holding
up the mirror.”
I hid my shock by asking when purebloods might blame themselves.
Mephi replied, “History suggests, not until they are made to.”
When, I asked, would that happen?
The professor spun his antique globe and answered merely: “Dr. Chu’an’s lecture continues
It must have taken courage to return.
Not really: an enforcer escorted me, so at least no one flung insults at me. The enforcer
addressed the second row of girls with courteous malice. “This is our row. Go to the back.”
The girls melted away, but I felt no triumph. It was the girls’ fear of Unanimity not their
acceptance of me, that prevailed. Dr. Chu’an was so flustered by the enforcer that she mumbled
her entire lecture without once looking at her audience. Prejudice is permafrost.
Did you brave any more lectures?
One, on Lööw’s Fundaments. By request I went unescorted, preferring insults to xternal
armor. I arrived early, took a side seat, and kept a visor on as the lecture hall filled. I was
recognized nonetheless. The students regarded me with mistrust, but no paper missiles were
launched. Two boys in front turned around: they had honest faces and rural accents. One asked
if I really was some sort of artificial genius.
Genius is not a word to bandy so casually, I suggested.
Hearing a server talk made the pair marvel. “It must be hell,” said the second, “to have an
intelligent mind trapped in a body genomed for service.”
I had grown as attached to my body as he had to his, I responded.
The lecture proceeded without event, but when I left the hall, a small riot of questions, miked
walkmans, and flash nikons was waiting for me. Which Papa Song’s had I come from? Who
had enrolled me at Taemosan? Were there more of me? What were my views on the
Yoona~939 Atrocity? How many weeks did I have before my ascension degenerated? Was I
an Abolitionist? What was my favorite color? Did I have a boyfriend?
Media? On a corpocratic campus?
No, but Media had offered rewards for features on the Sonmi of Taemosan. I hooded and tried
to elbow my way back to the Unanimity Faculty but the crush was so thick, my visor was
knocked off and I was floored and badly bruised before two plainclothes enforcers could
xtricate me. Boardman Mephi met me in the Unanimity lobby and escorted me back to my
quarters, muttering that I was too valuable to xpose myself to the prurient mob. He rotated his
rainstone ring vigorously: a habit when tense. We agreed, from then on my lectures should be
dijied to my sony
What about the xperiments you were obliged to undergo?
Ah, yes, a daily reminder of my true status. They depressed my spirits. What was knowledge
for, I would ask myself, if I could not use it to better my xistence? How would I fit in on
Xultation nine years and nine stars later with my superior knowledge? Could am-nesiads erase the knowledge I had acquired? Did I want that to happen? Would I be happier? Fourthmonth
arrived, bringing my first anniversary as a specimen freak on Taemosan, but spring did not
bring me the gladness it brings the world. My curiosity is dying, I told Professor Mephi one
pleasant day, during a seminar on Thomas Paine. I remember the sounds of a baseball game
drifting thru his open window. My mentor said we had to identify the source of this malady,
and urgently. I said something about reading not being knowledge, about knowledge without
xperience being food without sustenance.
“You need to get out more,” remarked the professor.
Out where? Out to lectures? Out on the campus? Outings?
Next ninthnite, a young Unanimity postgrad named Hae-Joo Im elevatored to my apartment.
Addressing me as Miss Sonmi, he xplained that Professor Mephi had asked him to “come and
cheer you up.” Professor Mephi held the power of life and death over his future, he said, so
here he was. “That was a joke,” he added, edgily then he asked if I remembered him.
I did. His black hair was crewcut maroon now, and his eyebrows on-offed where they had
been unadorned; but I recognized Boom-Sook’s x-classmate who had brought the news of
Wing~027’s death at the hands of Min-Sic. My visitor looked around my living space,
enviously. “Well, this beats Boom-Sook Kim’s poky nest, doesn’t it? Big enough to swallow
my family’s entire apartment.”
I agreed, the apartment was very spacious indeed. A silence inflated. Hae-Joo Im offered to
stay inside the elevator until I wanted him to leave. Once again, I apologized for my lack of
social grace and invited him in.
He took his nikes off, saying “No, I apologize for my lack of social grace. I talk too much
when I get nervous, and say stupid things. Here I go again. Can I try out your maglev chaise
Yes, I said and asked why I made him nervous.
I looked like any Sonmi in any old dinery he answered, but when I opened my mouth I became
a doctor of philosophy The postgrad sat cross-legged on the chaise longue and swung,
wonder-ingly passing his hand through the magnetic field. He confessed, “A little voice in my
head is saying, ‘Remember, this girl—woman, I mean—I mean, person—is a landmark in the
history of science. The first stable ascendee! Ascendant, rather. Watch what you say, Im! Make
it profound!’ That’s why I’m just, uh, spouting rubbishy nothings.”
I assured him I felt more like a specimen than like a landmark.
Hae-Joo shrugged and told me the professor had said I could use a nite out downtown, and he
waved a Soulring. “Unanimity xpenses! Sky’s the limit. So what’s your idea of fun?”
I had no idea of fun.
Well, Hae-Joo probed, what did I do to relax?
I play Go against my sony I said.
“To relax?” he responded, incredulous. “Who wins, you or the sony?”
The sony, I answered, or how would I ever improve?
So winners, Hae-Joo proposed, are the real losers because they learn nothing? What, then, are
losers? Winners?
I said, If losers can xploit what their adversaries teach them, yes, losers can become winners in
the long term.
“Sweet Corpocracy”—Hae-Joo Im puffed—“let’s go downtown and spend some dollars.”
Didn’t he irritate you a little?
Initially, he irritated me a lot, but I reminded myself that he was Professor Mephi’s prescription for my malaise. Also, Hae-Joo had paid me the compliment of referring to me as a “person.” I
asked him what he normally did on ninthnites, when not coerced into looking after prize
He told me with a diplomatic lowered smile how men of Mephi’s stratum never coerce, only
imply. He might go to a dinery or bar with classmates or, if he lucked out, go clubbing with a
girl. I was not a classmate and not xactly a girl, so he suggested a galle-ria, to “sample the fruits
of Nea So Copros.”
Would he not be embarrassed, I asked, to be seen with a Sonmi? I could wear a hat and
Hae-Joo Im instead proposed a stick-on wizardly beard and a pair of reindeer antlers. I
apologized: I had none. The young man smiled, apologized for another stupid joke, and told me
to wear whatever I felt comfortable in, assuring me that I would blend in much better
downtown than in a lecture hall. A taxi was downstairs, and he would wait for me in the lobby.
Were you nervous about leaving Taemosan?
Slitely yes. Hae-Joo distracted me by siteseeing talk. He directed the taxi via the Memorial to
the Fallen Plutocrats, around Kyong-bokkung Palace, down the Avenue of Nine Thousand
AdVs. The driver was a pureblood Indian with a sharp nose for fat fares from xpense
accounts. “An ideal nite for Moon Tower, sir,” he happened to mention. “Very clear.” Hae-Joo
agreed on the spot. The helter-way ascended the gigantic pyramid, high, high, high above the
canopies, above everything xcept the corp monoliths. Have you been up Moon Tower by nite,
No, not even by day. We citizens leave the Tower for the tourists, mostly.
You should go. From the 234th story, the conurb was a carpet of xenon and neon and motion
and carbdiox and canopies. But for the glass dome, Hae-Joo told me, the wind at this altitude
would fling us into orbit, like satellites. He indicated various humpbacks and landmarks: some
I had heard of or seen on 3-D, some not. Chongmyo Plaza was hidden behind a monolith, but
its dayblue stadium was visible. SeedCorp was the lunar sponsor that nite. The immense lunar
projector on far-off Fuji beamed AdV after AdV onto the moon’s face: tomatoes big as babies,
creamy cauliflower cubes, holeless lotus roots. Speech bubbles ballooned from SeedCorp’s
logoman’s juicy mouth, guaranteeing that his products were 100 percent genomically modified.
Descending, the elderly taxi driver spoke of his boyhood in a distant conurb called Mumbai,
now deadlanded, when the moon was always naked. Hae-Joo said an AdVless moon would
freak him out.
Which galleria did you go to?
Wangshimni Orchard: what an encyclopedia of consumables! For hours, I pointed at items for
Hae-Joo to identify: bronze masks, instant bird’s nest soup, fabricant toys, golden suzukis, air
filters, acidproof skeins, oraculars of the Beloved Chairman and statuettes of the Immanent
Chairman, jewel-powder perfumes, pearlsilk scarves, realtime maps, deadland artifacts,
programmable violins. A pharmacy: packets of pills for cancer, aids, alzheimers, lead-tox; for
corpulence, anorexia, baldness, hairiness, exuberance, glumness, dewdrugs, drugs for
overindulgence in dewdrugs. Hour twenty-one chimed, yet we had not advanced beyond a
single precinct. How the consumers seethed to buy, buy, buy! Purebloods, it seemed, were a
sponge of demand that sucked goods and services from every vendor, dinery bar, shop, and
nook.Hae-Joo led me to a stylish café platform where he bought a styro of starbuck for himself and
an aqua for me. He xplained that under the Enrichment Statutes, consumers have to spend a
fixed quota of dollars each month, depending on their strata. Hoarding is an anti-corpocratic
crime. I knew this already but did not interrupt. He said his mum feels intimidated by modern
gallerias, so Hae-Joo usually works through the quota.
I asked him to tell me how it feels to be in a family.
The postgrad smiled and frowned at the same time. “A necessary drag,” he confided. “Mum’s
hobby is collecting minor ailments and drugs to cure them. Dad works at the Ministry of
Statistics and sleeps in front of 3-D with his head in a bucket.” Both parents were random
conceptions, he confessed, who sold a second child quota to get Hae-Joo genomed properly
This let him aim for his cherished career: to be a Unanimityman had been his ambition since the
disneys of his boyhood. Kicking down doors for money looked like a fine life.
His parents must love him very much to make such a sacrifice, I noted. Hae-Joo replied that
their pension will come out of his salary Then he asked, had it not been a seismic shock to be
uprooted from Papa Song’s and transplanted into Boom-Sook’s lab? Didn’t I miss the world I
had been genomed for? I answered, fab-ricants are oriented not to miss things.
He probed: Had I not ascended above my orientation?
I said I would have to think about it.
Did you xperience any negative reactions from consumers in the galleria? As a Sonmi outside
Papa Song’s, I mean.
No. Many other fabricants were there: porters, domestics, and cleaners, so I did not stand out
so much. Then, when Hae-Joo went to the hygiener, a ruby-freckled woman with a teenage
complexion but telltale older eyes apologized for disturbing me. “Look, I’m a media fashion
scout,” she said, “call me Lily. I’ve been spying on you!” And she giggled. “But that’s what a
woman of your flair, your prescience, my dear, must xpect.”
I was very confused.
She said I was the first consumer she’d seen to facescape fully like a well-known service
fabricant. Lesser strata, she confided, may call my fashion statement brave, or even antistrata,
but she called it genius. She asked if I would like to model for “an abhorrently chic 3-D
magazine.” I’d be paid stratospherically, she assured me: my boyfriend’s friends would crawl
with jealousy. And for us women, she added, jealousy in our men is as good as dollars in the
I declined, thanking her and adding that fabricants do not have boyfriends. The mediawoman
pretended to laugh at my imagined joke and xamined every contour on my face. She begged to
know which facescaper had done me. “A craftsman like this, I have got to meet. Such a
After my wombtank and orientation, I said, my life had been spent behind a counter at Papa
Song’s, and so I had never met my facescaper.
Now the fashion editor’s laugh was droll but vexed.
So she couldn’t believe you weren’t a pureblood?
She gave me her card and urged me to reconsider, warning that opportunities like her do not
happen ten days a week.
When the taxi dropped me at Unanimity Hae-Joo Im asked me to use his given name from then
on. “Mr. Im” made him feel like he was in a seminar. Lastly, he asked if I might be free next
ninthday I did not want him to spend his valuable time on a professorial obligation, I said, but Hae-Joo insisted he had enjoyed my company I said, well, then, I accept.
So the xcursion helped dislodge your … sense of ennui?
In a way, yes. It helped me understand how one’s environment is a key to one’s identity but
that my environment, Papa Song’s, was a lost key. I found myself wishing to revisit my xdinery under Chongmyo Plaza. I could not fully xplain why, but an impulse can be both
vaguely understood and strong.
It could hardly be wise for an ascended server to visit a dinery?
I do not claim it was wise, only necessary Hae-Joo also worried that it might “unearth buried
things.” I responded that I had buried too much of myself, so the postgrad agreed to
accompany me, on condition that I went disguised as a consumer. The following ninthnite he
showed me how to upswirl my hair and apply cosmetics. A silk neck scarf hid my collar, and
in the elevator down to the taxi he fitted dark ambers on my face.
On a busy fourthmonth evening, Chongmyo Plaza was not the litter-swarming wind tunnel I
remembered from my release: it was a kaleidoscope of AdVs, consumers, xecs, and popsongs.
Beloved Chairman’s monumental statue surveyed his swarming peoples with an xpression
wise and benign. From the Plaza’s southeast rim, Papa Song’s arches drew into focus. HaeJoo held my hand and reminded me we could turn back at any time. As we got in line for the
elevator, he slipped a Soulring onto my finger.
In case you got separated?
For good luck, I thought: Hae-Joo had a superstitious streak. As the elevator descended, I grew
very nervous. Suddenly, the doors were opening and hungry consumers riptided me into the
dinery As I was jostled, I was stunned at how misleading my memories of the place had been.
In what ways?
That spacious dome was so poky Its glorious reds and yellows, so stark and vulgar. The
wholesome air I remembered: now its greasy stench gagged me. After the silence on
Taemosan, the dinery noise was like never-ending gunfire. Papa Song stood on His Plinth,
greeting us. I tried to swallow, but my throat was dry: surely my Logoman would condemn his
prodigal daughter.
No. He winked at us, tugged himself skyward by his own nike-straps, sneezed, oopsied, and
plummeted down to His Plinth. Children screamed with laughter. I realized, Papa Song was
just a trick of lites. How had an inane hologram once inspired such awe in me?
Hae-Joo went to find a table while I circummed the Hub. My sisters smiled under sugary
toplites. How unflaggingly they worked! Here were Yoonas, here was Ma-Leu-Da~108, her
collar now boasting eleven stars. At my old counter on west was a fresh-faced Sonmi. Here
was Kyelim~889, Yoona’s replacement. I got in line at her teller, my nervousness growing
acute as my turn approached. “Hi! Kyelim~889 at your service! Mouthwatering, magical, Papa
Song’s! Yes, madam? Your pleasure today?”
I asked her if she knew me.
Kyelim~889 smiled xtra to dilute her confusion.
I asked if she remembered Sonmi~451, a server who worked beside her, who disappeared one
A blank smile: the verb remember is outside servers’ lexicons. “Hi! Kyelim~889 at your service! Mouthwatering, magical, Papa Song’s! Your pleasure today?”
I asked, Are you happy, Kyelim~889?
Enthusiasm lit her smile as she nodded. Happy is a word in the Second Catechism: “Proviso I
obey the Catechisms, Papa Song loves me; proviso Papa Song loves me, I am happy.”
A cruel compulsion brushed me. I asked the Kyelim, didn’t she want to live how purebloods
live? Sit at dinery tables instead of wiping them?
Kyelim~889 wanted so badly to please, telling me, “Servers eat Soap!”
Yes, I persisted, but didn’t she want to see Outside?
She said, Servers don’t go Outside until Twelvestarred.
A consumer girl with zinc-ringlets and plectrum nails jabbed me. “If you’ve got to taunt dumb
fabricants, do it on firstday mornings. I need to get to the gallerias this side of curfew, okay?”
Hastily, I ordered rosejuice and sharkgums from Kyelim~889. I wished Hae-Joo was still with
me. I was jumpy in case the Soulring malfunctioned and xposed me. The device worked, but
my questions had marked me as a troublemaker. “Democratize your own fabricants!” A man
glowered as I pushed by with my tray “Abolitionist.” Other purebloods in the line glanced at
me, worried, as if I carried a disease.
Hae-Joo had found a free table in my old quarter. How many tens of thousands of times had I
wiped this surface? Hae-Joo asked, gently, if I had discovered anything valuable.
I whispered, “We are just slaves here for twelve years.”
The Unanimity postgrad just scratched his ear and checked no one was eavesdropping: but his
xpression told me he agreed. He sipped his rosejuice. We watched AdV for ten minutes, not
speaking: a Juche Boardman was shown opening a newer, safer, nuclear reactor, grinning as if
his strata depended on it. Kyelim~889 cleared the table next to us; she had already forgotten
me. My IQ may be higher, but she looked more content than I felt.
So your visit to Papa Song’s was an … anticlimax? Did you find the “key” to your ascended
Perhaps it was anticlimactic, yes. If there was a key, it was only that no key xisted. In Papa
Song’s I had been a slave; at Taemosan I was a more privileged slave. One more thing
occurred, however, as we headed back to the elevator. I recognized Mrs. Rhee, working at her
sony I spoke her name out loud.
The immaculately dewdrugged woman smiled up with puzzled, luscious, remodeled lips. “I
was Mrs. Rhee, but I’m Mrs. Ahn now. My late husband drowned in a sea-fishing accident
last year.”
I said that was just awful.
Mrs. Ahn dabbed her eye with her sleeve and asked if I had known her late husband well.
Lying is harder than purebloods make it look, and Mrs. Ahn repeated her question.
“My wife was a qualities standardizer for the Corp before our marriage,” Hae-Joo xplained
hastily, putting his hand on my shoulder and adding that Chongmyo Plaza was in her area and
that Seer Rhee had been an xemplary corp man. Mrs. Ahn’s suspicions were aroused,
however, and she asked xactly when that might have been. Now I knew what to say. “When
his chief aide was a consumer named Cho.”
Her smile changed its hue. “Ah, yes, Aide Cho. Sent north, somewhere, I believe, to learn
about team spirit.”
Hae-Joo took my arm, saying, “Well, All for Papa Song, Papa Song for All.’ The gallerias
beckon, darling. Mrs. Ahn is obviously a woman with no time to fritter.”
Later, back in my quiet apartment, Hae-Joo paid me this compliment. “If I had ascended from
server to prodigy in twelve straight months, my current address wouldn’t be a guest quarter in
the Unanimity Faculty: I would be in a psych ward somewhere, seriously. These … xistential
qualms you suffer, they just mean you’re truly human.”I asked how I might remedy them.
“You don’t remedy them. You live thru them.”
We played Go until curfew. Hae-Joo won the first game. I, the second.
How many of these xcursions took place?
Every ninthnite until Corpocracy Day. Familiarity bred esteem for Hae-Joo, and soon I shared
Boardman Mephi’s high opinion of him. The professor never probed about our outings during
our seminars; his protégé probably filed reports, but Mephi wished me to have at least the
illusion of a private life. Board business demanded more of his time, and I saw him less
regularly. The morning tests continued: a procession of courteous but unmemorable scientists.
Hae-Joo had a Unanimityman’s fondness for campus intrigue. I learned how Taemosan was no
united organism but a hillock of warring tribes and interest groups, much like the Juche itself.
The Unanimity Faculty maintained a despised dominance. “Secrets are magic bullets,” Hae-Joo
was fond of saying. But this dominance also xplains why trainee enforcers have few friends
outside the faculty Girls looking for husbands, Hae-Joo admitted, were attracted to his future
status, but males of his own age eschewed getting drunk in his company.
Archivist, my appointment in the Litehouse is approaching. Can we segue to my final nite on
Please do.
A keen passion of Hae-Joo’s was disneys, and one perq of Professor
Mephi’s mentorship was access to forbidden items in the security
You mean Union samizdat from the Production Zones?
No. I mean a zone even more forbidden, the past, before the Skirmishes. Disneys were called
“movies” in those days. Hae-Joo said the ancients had an artistry that 3-D and Corpocracy had
long ob-solesced. As the only disneys I had ever seen were Boom-Sook’s pornsplatters, I was
obliged to believe him. On sixthmonth’s final ninthnite, Hae-Joo arrived with a key to a
disneyarium on campus, xplaining that a pretty Media student was currying favor with him. He
spoke in a theatrical whisper. “I’ve got a disc of seriously one of the greatest movies ever made
by any director, from any age.”
A picaresque entitled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, made before the foundation of
Nea So Copros, in a long-deadlanded province of the European democracy. Have you ever
seen film dating from the early twenty-first century, Archivist?
Sweet Corpocracy, no! An eighth-stratum archivist wouldn’t get such security clearance in his
wildest dreams! I’d be fired for even applying, and I’m shocked that even a Unanimity
postgrad has access to such deviational material.
Is that so? Well, the Juche’s stance on historical discourse is riddled with inconsistencies. On
the one hand, if historical discourse were permitted, the downstrata could access a bank of
human xperience that would rival, and sometimes contradict, that taught by Media. On the other
hand, corpocracy funds your Ministry of Archivism, dedicated to preserving a historical record for future ages.
Yes, but our xistence is kept from the downstrata.
Xcept from those condemned to the Litehouse.
Be that as it may, future ages will still be corpocratic ones. Corpocracy isn’t just another
political system that will come and go—corpocracy is the natural order, in harmony with
human nature. But we’re digressing. Why had Hae-Joo Im chosen to show you this Ghastly
Perhaps Professor Mephi had instructed him. Perhaps Hae-Joo Im had no reason xcept a
fondness for the disney Whatever the reason, I was engrossed. The past is a world both
indescribably different from and yet subtly similar to Nea So Copros. People sagged and
uglified as they aged in those days: no dewdrugs. Elderly pure-bloods waited to die in prisons
for the senile: no fixed-term life spans, no euthanasium. Dollars circulated as little sheets of
paper and the only fabricants were sickly livestock. However, corpocracy was emerging and
social strata was demarked, based on dollars and, curiously, the quantity of melanin in one’s
I can tell how fascinated you were …
Certainly: the vacant disneyarium was a haunting frame for those lost, rainy landscapes. Giants
strode the screen, lit by sunlite captured thru a lens when your grandfather’s grandfather,
Archivist, was kicking in his natural womb. Time is the speed at which the past decays, but
disneys enable a brief resurrection. Those since fallen buildings, those long-eroded faces: Your
present, not we, is the true illusion, they seem to say. For fifty minutes, for the first time since
my ascension, I forgot myself, utterly, ineluctably
Only fifty minutes?
Hae-Joo’s handsony purred at a key scene, when the film’s eponymous book thief suffered
some sort of seizure; his face, contorted above a plate of peas, froze. A panicky voice buzzed
from Hae-Joo’s handsony; “It’s Xi-Li! I’m right outside! Let me in! A crisis!” Hae-Joo
pressed the remo-key; a wedge of light slid over the empty seats as the disneyarium door
opened. A student ran over, his face shiny with sweat, and saluted Hae-Joo. He delivered news
that would unravel my life, again. Specifically, forty or fifty enforcers had stormed the
Unanimity Faculty arrested Professor Mephi, and were searching for us. Their orders were to
capture Hae-Joo for interrogation and kill me on sight. Campus xits were manned by armed
Do you remember your thoughts on hearing that?
No. I think, I did not think. My companion now xuded a grim authority that I realized had
always been there. He glanced at his rolex and asked if Mr. Chang had been captured. Xi-Li,
the messenger, reported that Mr. Chang was waiting in the basement ford park. The man I had
known as Postgrad Hae-Joo Im, backdropped by a dead actor, playing a character scripted over
a century ago, turned to me. “Sonmi~451, I am not xactly who I said I am.”