Authors: Geoff Ryman
Tags: #Romance, #Science Fiction, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Fantasy
An envelope. It was as if something had been sent to her out of a previous century. Milena carefully lifted up the flap and pulled out a thick white card. It was edged in gold. Jacob waiting, smiling.
The card was engraved in beautifully flowing copperplate script.
'Do you feel able to tell me what it says?' Jacob asked her shyly.
'It's an invitation,' said Milena. 'For dinner at eight o'clock tomorrow evening.' She passed him the card. 'With Rolfa's family.'
The Bears of London lived together in one street in Kensington. It was a Nash terrace, painted cream, with black wooden doors.
Milena was too short to reach the door knocker. She tried jumping and missed and decided to avoid any further risk to her dignity. She pounded on the door with the heel of her hand.
There were shouts and thumpings and suddenly the door was thrown open by a naked Polar teenager. All her fur the length of her body was in braids. There was a blast of icy air from inside. The girl took one hardened look at Milena and yelled. 'Rolf-a! Your little
here.' Then she walked away, leaving the door open.
It was bitterly cold inside. All the walls between the houses had been knocked down to make one enormous, barren room that ran the length of the street. A large male GE in a metal mask was squatting over a machine, welding a join. Milena had time to notice that the floor was covered in fur.
'Shut the door!' the Polar girl shouted. There was angry thumping, the girl stalked past Milena and flung the door shut. 'It makes our hair fall out, you little Squidge,' she snarled. 'Rolfa! Slump your fat tush down here!'
The room was full of unopened bamboo packing cases. Polar teenagers lounged on them, watching a screen. It was video! It was showing an old movie! Milena couldn't help but stare in wonder. There was a flash and a mechanical scream, and Milena saw someone torn to pieces before her very eyes. Why on earth, she wondered, have a video and men use it to see something like that?
'What are you staring at?' said another GE, a boy, his voice cracking on the edge of puberty like an egg.
'Nothing,' said Milena.
'She's never seen a video,' said the girl and rolled her eyes. Some of the Bears were grooming each other, brushing their pelts or braiding them. It was their moulting season, too hot to go outside. They were sullen and dangerous with boredom. Milena hugged herself and tried to stand her emotional ground, but she was still feeling sick from having seen a human being rent into stringy chunks. She began to shiver from the cold. That's frost, she saw in dismay, that's frost on the
of the windows.
Rolfa appeared at the top of the staircase. She was trying to wear a dress, and looked like an unsteady column of crumpled satin. She began her descent, clutching the handrail, stumbling, swaying. Her feet kept catching on the inside of her hem, making frantic motions within it like trapped rabbits.
Rolfa, lift the dress
Milena willed, silently.
Rolfa's hair had been brushed back out of her eyes and was held up by two pink resin butterfly clips that looked like lopsided ears. Braving the distance between the staircase and Milena, Rolfa held out something soft and black. It was a fur.
'We usually dine upstairs,' Rolfa said, as if to a stranger.
'Thank you,' said Milena for the fur, and wrapped it around herself, her teeth chattering.
'Follow me,' said Rolfa and began the ascent. She stood once more on the hem of her dress, and had to hold out a hand to catch herself.
'Rolfa,' whispered Milena. 'Up. Hold it up.'
There was a collapse of laughter from the cousins behind them.
There was something majestic about the way Rolfa ignored them. She bent over and lifted up her dress from the bottom, exposing her knees, and climbed the stairs.
There were chandeliers overhead. They blazed with light. There was a chug-chugging noise in the background. A private generator. There were paintings, extravagances of flowers or empty street scenes at dusk. But no people. Thick wires trailed alongside the carpet on the stairs, and from somewhere came the singing of a circular saw. The cold sunk into Milena's bones.
'Want to wash your hands?' Rolfa asked, quickly.
'I think they'd freeze if I did,' replied Milena, watching her breath rise as vapour. I wonder, she thought, if my eyebrows are frosted.
'In here,' said Rolfa. Her voice was higher and softer than usual, very precise but barely audible as if there was no force of breath or personality behind it. Milena was shown into a room that made her gasp.
Capitalism, she said to herself. Capitalism was what she thought she was seeing. It was the only word she had for it.
There was a polished mahogany table. Little rough wooden boots had been nailed to the bottom of each leg to make it tall enough for GEs. There were more real paintings on the walls, another showerburst of light overhead deflected through crystal. There was an enormous covered dish made of silver on the middle of the table. It was twice as long as Milena was tall. There were silver knives, silver forks, silver candlesticks, matching mahogany chairs and, in the corner, a tin rubbish bin. Even in the cold, it stank of fish. Milena thought: what if we're all still working for them?
A door swung open and a Polar female walked in backwards. She wore a billowing orange dress and carried a kind of porcelain cistern in front of her, a vat of food.
'Hiya, Squidge,' she said to Milena. The tone was not unfriendly. She put the cistern on the table and reached into the bodice of her dress. 'You want some mitts?'
'Oh yes please,' said Milena all in a rush.
'Thought you might,' said the GE and rumpled her lip in Rolfa's direction. 'Here you go.' She threw a brown ball of wool at Milena. Fingers trembling, Milena unwound it. They were gloves designed for counting money in Antarctic blizzards. There were no tips to the fingers. They looked utterly indigent, as if they'd been half-eaten by mice.
'This is my sister, Zoe,' said Rolfa.
'You're Milena,' said Zoe. Milena was too cold to answer. Zoe left, shaking her head as if it wasn't Milena's fault that she'd been brought there. As she went out another sister came in.
She was even bigger, and her cheeks were flexed with the effort of keeping down a grin. She looked at Milena and Rolfa, nearly dropped two tubs of food on the table, and ran out. From behind the swinging door, there came a shriek of laughter. It was followed by spurts and whisperings.
'That's Angela,' said Rolfa.
Milena sat down. The table was on a level with her chin. The two sisters re-entered, a matching pair, batting their long black eyelashes at each other over the top of fluttering Japanese fans. They lowered themselves gracefully onto chairs, spreading napkins over their laps. Zoe's hair was wrapped around a hoop to make a glossy, flowing arch around the back of her head, Navajo style, Milena's viruses told her. 'I like your hair,' she said.
'Do you?' beamed Zoe, lowering her fan. She batted her eyelashes. 'Do you like my moustache as well?'
Then Milena saw that her moustache had also been wrapped around hoops, one at each end.
'I used to have the same trouble with mine,' Milena replied, with a flash of instinct.
The eyelashes stopped batting.
'Only,' said Milena with a sigh, 'now I shave mine off.'
There was a click behind Milena and a kind of surly grunt. Milena turned to see a short GE. He was rotund and bristling like a hedgehog, his cheeks puffed out as if enraged. He was punching keys on a small device that made a whizzing sound and printed out a result on paper.
He climbed up onto an especially high chair, tore off a piece of paper, and attached it to his fur with a hair-grip. He was decorated with bits of paper like a Xmas tree.
'We gonna eat?' he asked, and went back to punching keys.
'Yes, of course, Papa,' said Angela, standing up. She lifted off the lid of the giant dish with a kind of malicious flair. It rang.
They were going to eat a seal, a whole roast seal. Its eyes had gone white and it was surrounded by a moat of amber fat.
Rolfa's father reached forward and began to thumb out one of its eyes.
'Papa!' exclaimed Angela. 'Please, remember our guest.'
'You want an eye, Squidge?' the father asked Milena.
'Yes please,' said Milena, crisply. He passed it to her on a plate. It rolled. Her eyes stonily on Angela, Milena popped it into her mouth. It's a grape, she told herself, it's just a grape. It crunched as she chewed it.
'Of course, we're on our best behaviour because of you, Ms Smash-puss,' said Angela, as she began to carve the seal. 'Usually we tear the hot carcass to pieces with our bare paws.' With deft aplomb, she lowered a section of seal filet onto Milena's plate without letting fall a drop of grease.
'Some wine, Ms Shambosh? We make it ourselves out of leftovers. I do hope you like it.'
'Oh don't mind me,' said Milena. 'I'll drink anything.'
'If you're friends with Rolfa,' said Zoe, sounding serious, 'you probably have to.'
Angela went on serving.
she said to her sister. 'You have let slip your nap-kin.' She sliced the word in half, like an orange, as a joke. They were making fun, of Rolfa, of Squidges, of the way they thought Squidges thought of them. You are merry gals, Milena thought. But that is no reason to let you get away with anything.
'Do try not to blow your nose on it this time,
Do you know, Ms Fishfuss, the last time she let slip her nap-kin, she picked it up and blew her nose on it, and it turned out to be the hem of my dress.'
'Well,' said Milena, sipping the wine. 'Better than wiping her arse on it.'
'You girls want to carry on like that, you can leave the table,' said the father.
The serious business of eating commenced. It was noisy and prolonged. Handfuls of boiled seaweed were shovelled onto plates and into mouths. There was a side salad of whole raw mackerel. Rolfa's father held one by the tail and lowered it into his mouth, steadily crunching. Seal paws were another great delicacy.
eat the toenails, Zoe,' said Angela. 'What will Ms Shitbush think of us?'
'You seem to be having some trouble with my name,' said Milena, giving up trying to cut her seal. She had to hold her hands up almost over her head to reach it. 'My last name is Shibush. My family are from Eastern Europe, but the name itself is Lebanese. I believe your name is originally Asian, too, isn't it.'
A silence as icy as the room descended.
Rolfa said nothing. She kept her eyes down on the plate and ate with pained, exaggerated good manners that made Milena want to throw the seal cutlet at her. When asked to pass the salt, Rolfa wordlessly reached across the table, moving as slowly as a rusty hinge. Rolfa was in hiding, even here, in what was supposed to be her home.
Her father sniffed and proprietorially brushed some seaweed off the table and into his cupped hand. He then threw it over his shoulder.
'So you actually work in Toy Town, do you, Squidge?'
'Were you talking to me?' Milena demanded.
'I wasn't talking to the seal.'
'My name is Milena. Perhaps no one told you that.'
'OK. Milly. You work at that place.'
'The National Theatre of Southern Britain. Yes, I do.'
'Could you tell my daughter please what the attitude of that place is towards GEs? For instance, are they ever going to let her sing there?'
Was that Rolfa's ambition? Milena's heart sank for her. Rolfa, Rolfa, you won't get to sing at the Zoo by hiding in tunnels. Milena looked at her. Rolfa reached thoughtfully for her wine, eyes focused inwards.
Milena answered the father's question. 'They probably won't, no,' she said, softly.
'Hey, Rolfa, we're talking about you. Did you hear that? Rolfa!' He slammed the table. Rolfa jumped, along with the glasses and the silverware. 'Look at yourself, sometime, girl. They're never going to let you sing, you're covered in fur.'
Rolfa picked up her silver knife and fork and began to eat again, in silence.
'Your daughter is a better singer than almost anyone at the National Theatre.' Milena spoke warily. 'She could also become a very fine composer.' Milena looked at Rolfa's face for any sign of surprise. The face remained a mask. 'If she ever got any help or training or encouragement...' Milena broke off. She's had to do it all by herself, Milena thought. She's had to do it all alone.
'Is that true?' Zoe asked, leaning forward.
Milena's eyes seemed to swell like small balloons about to burst. She could only nod in answer.
'Can you tell me why she's such a fat slob?' the father asked.
'Because her father is,' replied Milena. She felt like spitting at him.
He saw that and liked Milena for it. He laughed, showing his canine fangs. 'Hell yes,' he said, and belched.
'What does she
all day?' Zoe asked, concerned.
'I'm sorry, I'm not prepared to talk about Rolfa as if she isn't here.'
The father answered Zoe's question. 'She just hangs around. She thinks something's going to happen. Some angel's going to come down or something.' He looked back at Milena. 'She's wasted enough time. And money. End of summer, she goes to the Antarctic'
'Antarctic? You mean the South Pole?' Milena was rendered stupid by shock. 'Why?'