Authors: Edmund Cooper
It was on one of these rare occasions, when they were in the box at London Seven after an evening’s slumming and alcoholic jollification in the West End, that Leander put a call through on the plate. The buzzer sounded and Dion, being nearest to the receive stud, took the call.
As soon as the face showed on the screen Dion hit the cut stud. Leander’s face dissolved almost in the instant that it had formed—but not before Dion had registered a triumphant gleam in eyes that stared briefly and sardonically at him. He waited by the plate, motionless and numb for a few seconds, wondering if he was about to drop dead or if the call was about to be repeated. Nothing happened. Perhaps Leander simply was not in the mood for buttons.
Juno noticed his tenseness and had caught a fleeting glimpse of Leander. “Who was it, love?” she said lightly. “A spectre from your terrible prehistory?”
“Combined, possibly, with an intimation of my terrible
future,” remarked Dion enigmatically, wiping his forehead. Then he pulled himself together. “No one you would know, flat-belly. He moves in the low and vicious circles from which you have abstracted me with kindness, constancy and an embarrassment of lions.”
“You swallow when you lie.”
“I also swallow when I don’t.”
“Then come to bed and show me a sample of the merchandise you squander on Sylphide.”
“No. Only impatient, stripling.”
He leaped into bed with some alacrity. It was one way of avoiding abortive discussion. But even while he was engrossed in love-play, he could not forget the look in Leander’s eyes.
The following day, he deserted Juno and jetted north again. In Edale, a small bleak world enclosed by massive hills, he felt comparatively secure and relaxed. He arrived, drenched and with some drama, in the middle of a spring thunderstorm. He threw off his jet pack but was too impatient to deal with his sky suit. He simply unzipped the front and scooped Sylphide into his arms.
He wanted to fertilize her all over again. He wanted to breed a hundred sons and have them all come marching, male and mature, in ranks of four out of the same tiny yet immense womb. He wanted to love Sylphide because fulfilment was already there even before he began loving her. He wanted to have a written guarantee of immortality.
“What is it?” she asked at length. “You come dropping out of the sky like a sex-crazed imp.”
“I am a sex-crazed imp.”
Sylphide laughed and then sighed. “You are nothing but a man, Dion. And you must not make me love you too
deeply because you are Dom Juno’s squire. And when the baby comes, she will send me away, and that will be the end of it.”
“Blast Dom Juno,” he said savagely. “I’ll kill her. I’ll strangle her till her eyes pop out. Then I’ll drop her body in the sea from a thousand feet. Then you shall give me a son a year until we both die of exhaustion.”
“You love her,” said Sylphide simply.
“I hate her.”
“You love her, and perhaps you even love me. But most of all, you love yourself.”
He laughed hysterically and threw her down. But before he could do anything more, he fainted.
passed into summer. It was a long, golden summer with day after day that began in the clear amber of sunrise and rolled hotly but serenely through to the luminous crimson of sunset. Dion now spent most of his time among the billowy hills of the Peak District. He became a great one for climbing. Not for him the easy trip to the summit with a jet pack. He went up the hard way—armed with an apple, a wedge of cheese, French bread, a flask of water and his pencil and scribbling pad.
He had cut down on drinking and had stepped up on writing. He was beginning for the first time in his life to feel reasonably happy. He knew that it was all going to end; and—with some strange insight—he knew that it was all going to end in disaster.
But, for the time being, there were rosebuds to be gathered; and he gathered them.
Also, he turned back the clock. In the hills there was hardly any way of telling whether you were in the twenty-first century, the twentieth century or—for that matter—the fifteenth century. The colour of grass had not changed perceptibly with the passage of time, sheep still wore the same vacuous expressions that they had worn since that terrible dom Elizabeth the First had begun the long process of subjugating the English male, and silence was still silence in anybody’s century.
Dion lazed his days away scribbling verse, thinking – and
doing nothing. In the evenings he would come down from the hills and create a make-believe world with Sylphide at Wits’ End. He would pretend he was a nineteenth century yeoman farmer, blessed with a fertile and submissive wife. He would talk with great conviction about their non-existent farm and how life would be so much easier when he had a tall strong son to follow behind the plough. He found an old Bible and read aloud from it. He found some old records, scratchy and hissing, and played them on the antique gramophone. He developed a taste for musical comedy, because it was so incongruously absurd; and in the early summer evenings, Wits’ End would resound to
The Mikado, The Merry Widow
The Student Prince.
When Juno came, the spell was broken. Then he would switch character and become the twenty-first century roisterer—a squire who could drink any dom under the table and dish out enough sex to excite the admiration of the Director of the Freudian Institute.
He knew instinctively that he was running out of time. He knew—even if Sylphide’s now heavily swollen belly did not remind him—that the halcyon days were almost over. He knew that, presently, Dion Quern, prevaricator extraordinary, would have to decide whether to grow up or regress totally into a dream world.
At the beginning of August, Juno activated the trigger mechanism. Dion had wanted Sylphide to bear her child—as countless women in unnumbered generations had previously done—at home and unattended. Juno, on the other hand, wanted Sylphide to enjoy all the glorious and aseptic benefits of the London Clinic.
As Juno had taken the elementary precaution of committing Sylphide to proxy birth by contract, thus making Juno the legal owner of any issue, she could—if necessary – have
enforced her decision to have her property delivered at a place of her own choosing.
It wasn’t necessary. Sylphide was quite happy to go to the Clinic. Dion was the only one who seethed.
The baby was born in August. It was, as Dion had confidently expected, a son. There were no abnormalities, no after-effects. The blood-mother, having been allowed the luxury of hypnobirth (at an extra five hundred lions) was hardly aware that delivery had taken place; and the infant, a fine red-faced eight pounder, bawled as lustily as might be expected from a male child thrust precipitately into a world of women.
Eight hours after birth, a touching family group was assembled. Sylphide, having had her first saline swim, lay propped up in bed looking conventionally radiant on two c.c.s of Happyland. Dion stood on her right, Juno sat on her left, and the infant grumbled drowsily in its air hammock at the foot of the bed.
“I shall call him Jubal,” said Juno in a businesslike voice. “You will breast-feed for two weeks only, Sylphide, then he can go on to formula. I’ll take possession at the end of the third month, but if you wish, you can be retained until he’s ready for basic programming.”
Sylphide beamed. “You are so good to me, Dom Juno.” She had always called Juno Dom Juno. It was an attitude of subservience that made Dion wince.
He winced. He also stamped his foot. And raised his voice.
“God save us all!” he snapped, looking at Juno with eyes of hate. “So you intend to play the farce through, bitch?”
“The child is mine,” said Juno calmly, “according to contract and payment. What have you to complain about,
stripling? You’ve had your fun, and you have lived well. Spare us the tantrum. It’s too exhausting.”
“So is life,” he retorted, “and love, and copulation. In fact, the only thing that isn’t too tiring is death.”
“Thus speaks the philosopher.”
“Please, Dion,” pleaded Sylphide. “Dom Juno knows best.”
“Dom Juno knows best!” he shouted, glaring at her. “Has it dawned upon you yet, you big-breasted, empty-headed infant vending machine, that—but for the unthinking efforts of your kind—the doms would die out in a generation?”
Sylphide wanted to cry, but the Happyland kept her smiling brightly.
“That’s enough, troubadour,” said Juno. “Why don’t you head for the nearest bar and gain some poetic inspiration?”
“Enough!” roared Dion. “By Stopes, enough is the dirtiest word in the English language.” He took a deep breath and tried to match Juno’s calmness. He failed. “I am asking you,” he said icily, “to let Sylphide keep it. I am asking you because we have lain joyfully together, and because you have intelligence and because this is something I want.”
“There is something I want also,” said Juno. “Your child… Our child.”
He laughed. “
child! I gave affection and lust and a brigade of alcoholic semen. Sylphide gave her body. What the Stopes did you give?”
“An unlimited time contract with a starving meister-singer, a birth contract with a regressing infra, and three thousand lions,” retorted Juno. “And if you want to get maudlin, I also gave affection.”
“If you keep the baby, I’ll dissolve the contract.”
“Dissolve it. A permanent son is a fair exchange for an itinerant troubadour. When he’s old enough to develop a sense of humour, I may even tell him about you.”
Dion leaped across the bed, his hands reaching for Juno’s throat. She was too surprised to avoid him, and he connected. The beautiful body writhed as his fingers tightened; and he was only saved from destroying both Juno and himself by Sylphide breaking a water carafe over his head.
The carafe stunned him briefly and the cold water brought him back to his senses. His ear was cut and Juno’s throat was badly bruised. He picked himself up and glared at her.
“I’m sorry, Dion,” said Sylphide, still trying unsuccessfully to cry. “But you might have killed her, you know. You don’t stop to think. Then there would only have been me left, and I can’t keep a baby alone…” She turned to Juno. “He doesn’t really want to kill you, Dom Juno. It’s just that he gets excited. But, of course, you know that.”
They both ignored her.
“I’m asking you not to take the child from her.”
“I heard you the first time. The child belongs to me.”
“Then you will never see me again.”
“So you keep one, shrivel-womb. But I’ll keep Sylphide, and there will be more.”
“Your privilege, stripling.” She smiled faintly. “If you care for that sort of thing.”
“I’ll also keep Wits’ End. It pleases me.”
“It pleases me also. And it happens to be my property.”
Dion mopped his ear.
“Please,” said Sylphide, managing at last to cry, “please don’t alienate on my account.”
“Silence, woman,” said Dion, not looking at her. He faced Juno. “Then I’ll pay you an appropriate price for
Wits’ End—the pile of trove some bastard dom gave me for saving your life.”
Juno looked at him, white-faced. She, too, was near to tears. But there was too much pride in her, too much conditioning, for them to fall.
“Save your lions, sport,” she said coldly. “The hovel is yours… You will need all the trove you can get, if you are going to play the peasant.”
“Better for me to play the peasant,” he retorted, “than waste any more of my time pouring a stream of life between your barren legs.”
Then, without even glancing at Sylphide, he went from the room.
and Dion did not meet again in the flesh until shortly before the thin vein of poetry in his rebellious head was to be cauterized for ever, and the lodestar of his imagination sent spinning dizzily until it drowned in a psychic maelstrom. Meanwhile, after Jubal (surnamed Locke) had been handed over to his legal owner—and to the new infra who would attend to his bodily requirements—Dion took Sylphide back to Wits’ End, the quasi-pseudo-Victorian retreat in the hills that had become more satisfying to him than anything that he could find in the twenty-first century.
The long summer seared itself into a dry, bronze autumn. The leaves fell, and the scent of unimaginable journeys filled the air.
Realizing, perhaps, that Time’s winged chariot was not decelerating, he went into a brief final burst of creativity. Not poetry this time, but a series of letters. A series of letters to the true son he might never have but of whose future existence he did not entertain the slightest doubt. A series of letters about nothing and everything. About the pattern of dew on the grass; about the clouded look in a woman’s eyes; about loneliness and about getting drunk; about all the things that a man had to do and be and know merely in order to remain a man. He wrote also about practical things—such as how to steal from doms without technically breaking the law and how to keep one’s pride on an empty belly. The pencil was worn down to its last three inches; the
antique writing pad was almost finished. And so was Dion Quern.
But he had just about enough time left to complete two important tasks. The first – and the easier – was that of getting Sylphide pregnant once more. The second – and one that was difficult beyond comprehension – lay simply in communicating to her what little he knew about love. Love as distinct from desire; love as distinct from gratitude or loyalty; love that was simply a by-product of the tremendously undetectable act of discovering.
Sylphide just did not understand about love. Or, at least, she did not understand what Dion meant by it. For her it was a commodity. You could manufacture it, buy it, sell it, invest it. It was a practical thing of some functional value – and it could be mass-produced, tailor-made or even marketed as instant affection.
For Dion it was quite different. Sometimes it was an animal that rampaged inside his body, clawing at nerve ends. Sometimes it was a kind of loneliness that had to explode in passion. Sometimes it was a form of seeing, a way of knowing, a star-map marking the tortuous galactic route from one human being to another. Sometimes it was a nightmare and sometimes the blurred vision of an alcoholic. But, always, it was alive.