A message flashed up on the computer screen: Josh Widger, check under your bed. Josh blinked a few times, convinced he was hallucinating. The computer desk was wedged under the stairs and vibrated as Maria stomped up to put the kids to bed. Josh stretched and yawned. The message remained. It must be spam, he thought, though it was a strange advert. Maybe someone was playing a joke. He deleted the message.
He almost forgot as he watched television and rubbed Maria’s feet while she dozed next to him, but going to bed reminded him of the message.
I’m a missing person. Not that you’ll find me on any milk carton or across any headlines. No, I’m the reverse: all body and no spirit. No-one at this party knows that I’ve gone. I slipped out a while back, before I pulled apart my tie; before my mother got up to talk about my father, lips bleeding with lies. I most definitely left before then, before the talks. Way before. Not that I could tell you when.
At the downstairs bar, I flick through receipts that were stuffed in my trouser pockets and find a folded fiver, limp and soft, and a bit ripped. I hope they take it. I can’t be bothered to go to the cash point. They ought to; it’s not my fault the fiver has seen better days. It shouldn’t be chucked out because it’s a bit old. The barman notices me but he goes to a woman who’s just arrived at the bar. I’m not surprised, I would have too.
On the opposite side of the bar, a girl is staring at me. I stand up straight. She raises her eyebrows and sweeps the hair off her face. It’s impossible to tell her age, her skin is smooth but there’s something long lived about her; as if she’d circled the sun so many times that she could do it blindfolded and backwards. They say that’s confidence, that self-assurance comes with age. I reckon its exhaustion. I catch the barman’s eye again and put my order in: wine, large.
I write this by the guttering light of a candle, melted down so far, it’s mostly wick and puddle now. The darkness around me billows and retreats, billows larger again as a draft creeps in near my feet.
My nib scrapes against this paper, though I can barely read what I am writing. I ignore the repeated, demented, banging that I cannot tell if outside on the street or within this very house. I steady my hand so as to spill no more ink, and start at the beginning, with Thurwell bursting into the Club, a train of snow in his wake. Burton and I beckoned him to join us by the hearth, and sent for brandy. Neither of us had seen him since his return to England, and while he answered our many questions, I took the time to examine the changes five years abroad had wrought on the man. Never thickly set, he had dropped a weight of flesh from his bones but was finely dressed, moustache well waxed, beard curling from his thin chin in an upward hook.
“Gentleman,” he said, raising his tumbler in a toast. ‘To old friends.” In the dancing rosy firelight, his face had a positively Moorish aspect so that his eyes and teeth flashed all the whiter by contrast. “And tomorrow, my lambs, you must come to my rooms, for I have brought back mementos that I believe may amuse, things,” he looked around, “not suitable for such public galleries.”
“So we have the veg covered; on to poultry, then there’s just ingredients for desserts and hmm, anything else?”
“Wine, lots of wine.”
Copious amounts of alcohol would be the only way of getting through yet another dinner party with the awful couple from across the road Angela was so bloody obsessed with. She pretended she hadn’t heard my comment, as usual. The joys of Tescos.
“So you still O.K to take the kids out later?” She asked, whilst trying to select the best from a bunch of identical apples.
“Yeah sure, I’m a bit jealous of them actually.” I remarked.
She lifted her head briefly from apple duties to give me a disapproving look.
“Why on earth would you be jealous of a bunch of teenagers thrashing around to rock music and spilling drinks all over one another?”
“Because that sounds incredible.” I replied honestly. God, I couldn’t even remember the last time I was out past midnight. I’m sure I used to have fun. Angela tutted in response,
“Right, these should do fine. Let’s head over to the baking stuff.”
“Sounds absolutely thrilling, darling.”
“You go and get the wine then, make yourself useful.” Angela ordered, in a tone that reminded me of my mother.
I trudged over to the vast alcohol isle, passing a group of lads debating whether or not they would get served for their four litre bottle of cider. Those were the days.
So did the Wilson-Jones’ prefer Italian or French red? Who cares, I thought, grabbing a decent looking £5.99 bottle. Suddenly there was a loud clunk from behind me, followed by the unmistakeable sound of glass shattering. I looked around to survey the damage.
He stood in the lobby at the elevator doors, as he had on so many countless occasions before, Watching impatiently as the flashing numbers showed its rate of descent and cursing silently each time a solid light indicated that it was stopping at another floor. The fact that such a small hindrance stressed him so much was another source of annoyance. A further example of the human condition colliding with the modern world and making life more difficult than it needed to be. There was nothing natural about it. Primitive man had never spent time stressed out over the speed of an elevator. He absentmindedly stroked the long knot of scar tissue that ran down the from beneath his left eye to his chin. Five. It was stuck on five again. The front door of the building opened behind him and the pretty girl from Fairbanks Incorporated on floor ten entered. Most people kept a wary distance when they caught sight of his scar. Strangers were often reticent to share an elevator with him if they were on their own. The Fairbanks girl included. The first time he clapped eyes on her he observed how she slowed her pace upon seeing him standing in the elevator. A barely perceptible moment where she had considered turning on her heel and walking away. But his best gregarious smile and the fact that he held one hand between the doors to keep them open had persuaded her to climb on in. Reluctantly. It suited him that way. People made assumptions about his scar. He had worn it for so long now that he had become accustomed to the stares. They didn’t bother him in the least. In fact, if he searched the facial features of people when they first noticed him he could almost tell what they were thinking. Someone must have tried to kill him with a shank in prison. I’ll bet that he got it in a gang fight. Probably some kind of motorcycle accident. Riding without a helmet. He looked like the type that could be that reckless. It couldn’t possibly be anything to do with surgery. People only had surgery on their face to make themselves younger looking. Prettier. Never to make themselves look meaner. Sometimes they stared at him as if only the scar existed and not its owner. Recently while riding the subway to Union Square a kid sitting on its mother’s lap had pointed at him.
I clumsily stumbled off the train into the frosty, crispy air of Glasgow Central Station after my gruelling nightshift. My feet ached, my eyes were stinging and I was yawing with practically every breath. I couldn’t wait to cut through Thomson Street alley, to avoid the Christmas shopping hysteria in the city centre, get back to my flat, make some hot chocolate and climb into my lumpy old bed.
After buying a black coffee and a new pack of cigarettes, I eventually managed to squirm out of the crowded buzzing station and took the shortcut home. Thomson Street alley was quite wide and cobbled with a few charity shops and a crumbling old café that was in dire need of a facelift. I pulled on my woolly gloves and hugged my arms to my shivering body as I paced down the alley with fresh snow crunching under my warm boots. As I turned at the bend later in the alley, I stopped short to see a brand new shop. I had walked through the winding path only the day before and in the spot where the new shop now stood, there was merely a brick wall. I couldn’t understand how an entire shop could have been built and ready for business overnight. Had I just never noticed it before?
It was a small bookshop, decorated with pale blue paint that was peeling around the edges of the roughcast walls. Vines of flowers crawled up the structure into the guttering, strangling the little cottage. A sign above the glass door in an Old English script read: Ivy Moon Bookshop.
As Daniel sits and opens his laptop, Ruth takes a sip from her well-earned glass of white and looks at the little oak tree that has planted itself in the flowerbed at the bottom of the garden. Against the darkening sky, its leaves look almost black. From where they’re seated on the patio, the swaying of its branches makes the stars behind them seem as if they’re really twinkling.
‘It says here that some species of oak tree can grow up to two-and-a-half feet in a year.’ His eyes still on the screen, Daniel reaches for his beer, but before he can knock it over, Ruth slides it across the table and into his grasp. His lips quirk acknowledgement, and after taking a long draught, he peers over the top of his glasses at the tree. ‘What is it now … eight feet tall?’
The muse comes to me on a Saturday morning, while I am in bed, tucked underneath the covers, luxuriating in waves of sleep. She tries descending on me in a dream, but since her attempts at poking through my unconsciousness are unsuccessful, she glares at me through slivers of sunshine, rousing me awake.
I’m ready for you to write me, she says.
But it’s still early, I tell her drowsily. Not now. You better come back later. So she did. About forty-five minutes later that morning when I’d finally gotten out of bed, washed up and peered into the fridge, looking for milk and eggs only to find what looked like two cloves of wrinkled garlic.
When they quit the highway at Variadero, the countryside opened and the old Ford yawed on the graded washboard, sending ravens flapping and squawking before their rattling dustcloud.
A half-hour later, their progress metered by stunted cedars and silted arroyos, by chollas and cattleguards and glimpses of the distant river, they reached a gate.
“Bell Ranch,” the driver explained, mopping his face with a shirtsleeve.
He turned to the Indian, impassive in his tweed coat and polished brogans.
“I’ll get it.”
Beyond the gate, the ranch road straightened, parting a low, rolling landscape of blanched hardpan and telescopic mesas. They passed the remnants of a cattle chute, shipwrecked and listing, and a creaking windmill in whose shadow cows had gathered to loll in flickering somnolence.
When they topped the next rise, the driver braked the car and leaned and spat through the settling dust.
“There she is.”
The Indian straightened. Below them lay a canyon. A jagged suture of cottonwoods. New buildings, clustered in a clearing.
“What do you think about all of this?” he asked the driver.
“What, the feather?”
“No, not the feather. The dam.”
The driver was a young cowhand with sharp sideburns. He thumbed his hatbrim, scratching absently at his scalp.
“Well sir, I don’t rightly know. Jobs is jobs, I reckon. And Lord knows, we need the jobs.”
My name is Annabell. Like my mother, and her mother before that. Generations of Annabells, stretching behind me. The year is 2125, and the outside world is in ruins. Next week will mark my sixteenth year, and so tomorrow I will report for genetic placement. They say it is designed to ensure happiness, but all it really seems to ensure is limitations.
My door slides open. The hydraulics no longer squeal. It reminds me to wonder what will happen to my room after I’m gone. It reminds me to think of the brother I lost, who was transferred to the Maintenance Sector, and whose features I share. My mother stands in the doorway in her purple Domestic Sector dress. She is holding the gown I must wear to be placed. Its rainbow of colours is supposed to represent possibility, but all I see is empty promises.
“I wore this when I was tested,” she says. And I know it’s coming. The speech. I roll my eyes. “There used to be disharmony. The people were in disarray, before The Authority created this haven from the outside. The Authority is always present. They know what is best—“
“Don’t interrupt me. Tomorrow you are to go to Corridor Delta Nine in the Authority Sector, and from there you will be tested. Do you have any questions?”
I take my chance. It might be the last time I see my mother. “What’s outside?”
“You know what’s outside.”
“I know what they’ve told us is outside. What do you think is outside?”