Authors: Geoff Ryman
Tags: #Romance, #Science Fiction, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Fantasy
As they walked between the racks in the dark, the silence between them became uneasy. Milena had been wanting a flood of revelation, had reached a peak of joy. Now nothing happened. Rolfa, Rolfa, I know you are, you must be. Rolfa, say something about it. Rolfa, give me a sign. But Rolfa had gone dark, silent, like the racks.
Rolfa coughed and shuffled and turned on her alcohol light and seemed to ignore Milena, and simply stared down at her desk, the suddenly shaggy and intolerable mess of it.
'Tuh,' said Rolfa, the shudder-chuckle. She sat down, slumped at the desk and Milena's heart ached for her. Rolfa picked up a score and held it up, looking at it, questioning, as if no longer certain of its worth. Milena made sure that it was printed, not handwritten, not a manuscript.
'Do you ever write music yourself?' Milena asked.
Rolfa sniffed and shrugged.
'I'd like to see some, if you do,' Milena said.
'Oh! I get a few snatches descend on me from time to time,' said Rolfa. She turned and tried to smile. 'But I don't write anything down.' She shook her head and kept on shaking it.
She must simply remember it, thought Milena. But there could be an accident, anything could happen.
Memory. A full score in memory. Milena had another transfiguring idea.
She jumped up. 'I've got to go,' she said. 'I've got to go now.' She did a worried little dance. 'I don't want to, I just have to.'
'Toilet's over there,' said Rolfa and pointed.
'No, no you don't understand. I'll be back. Lunchtime. On the steps. Don't forget?'
Rolfa gave her head a shake, meaning no, she wouldn't forget and a kind of wondering, pale smile was coaxed out of her.
And Milena ran. She had about ten minutes. She ran all the way back to the Shell, up the flights of stairs. She heard a door opening on the landing below her, and spun around, and stumbled back down the steps, legs akimbo. And there he was.
'Jacob!' she gasped.
'Good morning, Milena. And how are you today?'
'Fine! Fine. I'm great! Jacob! Can you remember music?'
'Do you mean written music, Milena? Or do you mean the actual sound?'
'Yes, if it is part of a message. Yes. I can remember.' He nodded and smiled with beautiful ivory-coloured teeth.
Milena was still panting, a queasy trail of sweat on her forehead. 'Fine. Great. Can you come somewhere with me at six this evening?'
Jacob's face clouded over. 'Oh. I'm sorry, Milena. I don't think I can do that. I must run my other messages then. I must go to everyone in the building, and then deliver messages for them. I'm very sorry, Milena.'
'What if I helped?'
Jacob looked blank.
'What if you took one half of the floors and I took the other? You're supposed to come about five, right? So we'll both start about four thirty, run back and forth until six and men go on. Agreed? Agreed? It's very important, Jacob.'
He beamed. 'All right, Milena. I will help you. That will be very good.'
Milena gave a little snarl of delight, and kissed him on his cheek. 'That's great.' And suddenly she was weary.
'Do you have any messages for me, Milena?'
'Yes. One for Ms Patel. Tell her I'm too tired. I just won't be there for lunch.'
Tell her I love her?
'Tell her I'm not as immune as she thinks.'
And Jacob, for some reason, winked.
That afternoon, Milena ran from room to room on seven floors of the Shell. She had never known mere were so many people living there. Faces she had only glimpsed suddenly became alive for her. She knew what the insides of their rooms looked like, she knew whether or not they made their beds, she could smell what they were cooking. They did not want to give her messages.
'Um. I'll wait for Jacob in the morning,' many of them said.
'I'm an actress. I've got good memory viruses too.'
They might give their heads the slightest of angry shakes. They were angry with Jacob for deserting them, leaving them to this stranger. Milena was embarrassed. She was embarrassed by all this weight of life that was going on without her. The rooms were often full of people lounging together on beds, drinking, talking, playing chess on little resin boards.
Milena went to Cilia's room and it was full of the Vampires, twenty of them, thirty of them, packed in, talking, agreeing, disagreeing, laughing.
'What are you doing?' Cilia asked, rising to her feet.
'I'm helping Jacob out.'
And Milena explained, breathless. Milena the Postperson, someone called her, smiling. How does he know my name? Milena thought. I don't know his.
'Anybody got any messages?' she asked. 'I'll take them.' She knew then why Jacob always asked. It was nice to be needed.
In the evening she and Jacob hid behind the costumes as Rolfa sang.
'Can you remember? Can you remember it?' she asked him, whispering, desperate.
Jacob smiled and nodded, and put a finger to his lips.
It became routine, for a time.
Milena and Rolfa would have lunch together every day. Sometimes they ate in the Zoo cafe. Rolfa would always cringe just before going in. She had to duck to get through the doors, but it was more than that. She did not belong. She looked huge on the narrow benches, ridiculous bunched up under the tiny tables, her knees pressing up under them, dragging them with her when she stood up. Her fur hung into the soup, the cups were too small for her to drink from. Watching Rolfa eat was a fascinating spectacle. For Milena, it was like being in the mead hall with Beowulf. Rolfa's appetite and manners were of a previous historical era. She munched and belched and slurped and splattered, looking rather forlorn and helpless, as if there was nothing she could do about it. She would have two or three helpings of chips, which she shovelled into her mouth with thick and greasy fingers. She had to stick her long pink tongue down into cups and lap and lick to get anything out of them. She had to lap to drink anything — her tongue got in the way if she tried to sip like a human being. She leant over her soup bowl like a lion over a stream, glancing furtively about her.
Rolfa ate in an agony of embarrassment. Quiet, folded in on herself, a tight false smile and staring, darting eyes. She licked her plates to get the gravy hoping no one would notice. People stared. They chuckled in disbelief when she came back from the buffet with a third helping of stew or lasagne. The place was steamy, with sunlight pouring through windows. When she wasn't eating, she had to pant, moisture dripping off her long pink tongue.
'Does she eat the plates as well?' Milena once heard someone behind them murmur.
Milena didn't care. She was in love. She kept trying to smell Rolfa. The scent of Rolfa was pungent and a bit doggy, full of lanolin. Milena would haul it into her nostrils, savouring it along with the aromas of the food. She would ask to sample Rolfa's fish pie.
'Oooh, fish pie! Oh, please,' she would say. She hated fish pie. What she wanted was the taste of Rolfa on the fork.
I can't believe I'm doing this, she thought, sucking on the cutlery as if it were a lollipop.
She found herself wondering if she could lick Rolfa's plate without anyone noticing. She gave herself a very bad fright indeed when she stole from the cafe a spoon that Rolfa had used. She reached for it and something drew tight and stopped her, but the pull of Rolfa was stronger, and she touched it. It was still warm from Rolfa's hand. Something taut like wire seemed to snap with a twang, and Milena picked the spoon up and slipped it into her pocket.
This is ridiculous, she thought. What am I going to do with it? Keep it unwashed by my kitchen sink? That was exactly what she did with it.
Milena would deliberately walk into Rolfa to bury her face in her fur. She kept crowding into Rolfa, to feel the inhuman heat of her, to feel the tickle of the fur. Rolfa was highly charged with static. Milena would sometimes get a jolt of electricity from her. When she came near the little hairs on Milena's arm would stand up.
Rolfa began to get a bit annoyed with being walked into. 'We'll have to get you a bigger pavement,' she said, mystified.
Once Milena elbowed Rolfa into a rank of bicycles. Five or six of them fell over like dominoes in a row, and Rolfa's fur got caught up between a chain and a chain wheel.
'Oh, I'm sorry,' said Milena, and knelt to free her. She held the fur and gripped the calf and it was vast, fleshy and warm like someone's stomach. She fumbled with the chain, which was organically lubricated. Milena's hands, her nose and most of Rolfa's lower leg were smeared with thick moss-green.
'May I enquire, Little One? What are you doing?'
I'm hugging you,
'Little... Little One. I'll do it.' Rolfa eased her back, gently.
'Sorry. Sorry,' said Milena and hopped backwards. Oh God, how embarrassing. What
she doing? Oh Rolfa, Rolfa, please notice, please say something, please do something.
can't say it!
Rolfa began to take her to the opera. They went to the first night of
The Vampires showed up in en masse as the original 1890 London audience. The men wore tails and the women wore bustles. Someone played George Bernard Shaw.
Rolfa seemed delighted. All through the opera she rocked with laughter, throwing herself back and forth in her seat. The whole row rolled with her weight. Milena was entranced by the staging and the lights. She loved the rumble of the great old stage as it began to rotate, and an inn was replaced with a house by the river. She was less moved by the music.
As they stood up at the end, Milena asked. 'Why weren't there any arias?'
'Tuh!' shuddered Rolfa. 'Every line in Verdi is an aria!' Milena thought that was hyperbole, simply a way to emphasise how much Rolfa had enjoyed the performance. It did not occur to her that it might be the literal truth.
The Vampires crowded around Cilia. She had played one of the Merry Wives and she had been delicious. She had made the scheming against old John Falstaff seem light and happy. She had worn the old costumes and had made the old stage moves. 'Cilia! Cilia!' said a young man, hopping up and down, forgetting his Vampire role. 'You were as good as the original.'
'You were better,' whispered Milena, as she kissed Cilia on the cheek. Love seemed to spill over everywhere.
Milena and Rolfa walked home along the river, and the alcohol lights were the colour of a low moon in a smoky sky.
'Oh dear,' sighed Rolfa. 'They really shouldn't try to perform music. No one should. They only ever end up performing part of it. Never the whole.'
'But people want to hear it, don't they?'
'More like the musicians want to play it,' said Rolfa. 'They haven't learned that they can't. It's an impossibility. Like trying to tell the whole truth.'
They reached the steps of the Shell. 'Goodnight,' said Rolfa. She began to walk backwards. The river glittered behind her, and with each step, she whispered, 'Good night. Good night. Good night.' Then she put a finger to her lips for silence.
Milena went to bed alone.
The nights were the worst. Milena would be feverish with love, unsettled, as if Rolfa were in the bed next to her, as if the miles that separated them were nothing, as if she could reach out and feel the warmth and the fur. It was like holding a ghost.
Sometimes she would remember the terror.
The viruses! she would think and sit bolt upright. She had forgotten about the viruses!
She would think of her dirty hands that had crammed food into her mouth and had rubbed in her eyes. She would think of the cutlery she had not washed, of how dirty her mouth was, of all the risks, the pointless risks she had taken. She would throw off the counterpane in panic. She would shower, even though the water in the middle of a summer night could be freezing cold. She boiled kettles and scalded her sink. She boiled all her plates and all her melting forks. She put salt in boiling water and let it cool for a moment in the mug, puffing at it. Then she would gargle, feeling the salt wither the inside of her cheeks. She would scrub her hands and suddenly cover her face and weep, from lack of sleep, from being stretched too far.
I will give her up, Milena would think. I won't see her. This is getting silly. And the next day, they would have lunch again.
They took to having picnics, in the garden by the river. They would sit on the grass, and Rolfa would crunch her way through the cooked legs of animals, a huge and filthy napkin tied around her neck. She would look quite jolly then, making cracking sounds and sucking out bone marrow. The Polar Bears had genetically engineered stomachs. They could digest almost anything. Rolfa ate the bones as well. Then she would drink gallon jars of yogurt and water. She didn't say much. Milena caught the scent of her breath and realised why: Rolfa was no longer drinking.
The GE was the most fascinating irresolution of opposites. She was huge and coy at the same time. Like the fat girl in the Child Garden whom everyone bullies, Rolfa moved with a fearful, tip-toe precision that meant she invariably knocked something over. She was boisterous and coarse and delicate and refined, usually within the same sentence. She talked about art. She talked about how Elgar changed keys. How he would play a joke, start in one direction, stop and go back again, start and stop again, and suddenly pull the rug out from under you by doing it backwards with the simplicity of a conjurer. 'He's the funniest ficken composer who ever lived!' she exclaimed, and laughed, exposing rotten teeth and a roiling mass of half-chewed food.