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Authors: I. F. Godsland

In World City

BOOK: In World City
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In World City

I.F. Godsland

Copyright © 2015 I.F. Godsland

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study,

or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents

Act 1988, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in

any form or by any means, with the prior permission in writing of the

publishers, or in the case of reprographic reproduction in accordance with

the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency. Enquiries

concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.

All characters in this book are fictional and any resemblance

to persons living or dead is purely coincidental

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Thanks to Maggie, for taking me to the Island

Life and Death

“The purpose of death is to teach us to give life our unconditional support.”

Apostate Scientist

Handelmann's Hotel...

In the best World City caravanserais, right of access to your room can be gained only by offering the lock card dispenser something uniquely your own: a voice, a handprint, the patterns on your iris. Dion prefers immunotype, which is the most hidden and so safest of all. For this is Handelmann's, that peculiar offshoot of the international chain, set hard against the crumbling concrete high-rises of the ancient Eastern Bloc, where somebody has seriously misjudged developments and built the luxury hotel isolated like a lotus in excrement. Still, it has remained open, despite – or because of – an increasingly unusual reputation; which it has acquired thanks to the likes of Dion, who walks through the artificial breeze that whispers in the tropical lobby jungle, thinking all the while of turning back out the door and into the Waste. Back into all that is not World City.

He finds the lock card dispenser set in the ceramic reception desk, presents his credit chip and places his hand on the sampler deck. There are discreet sounds, then the slight sting of tissue being taken. The processor identifies the unique configuration of relevant loci and the card emerges: room 243. Dion observes his participation in the ritual. He stares at the immaculate desk top and his hand resting on its sterile surface. He sees his hand take the lock card but his gaze remains on the desk top. He imagines it cracked and dusty, the tropical creepers that festoon the lobby forcing their way into the joins in the marble, splitting the blocks apart with their slow, inexorable growth; refashioning the material structure of the hotel into a fantasy image of jungle ruin. He imagines the pools and fountains overflowing, rivulets of the water coursing through the building, wearing away its foundations, dissolving the roots of World City, until nothing is left but earth and water and jungle.

But, as he follows the porter across the concourse, it is the building that closes to enmesh him. For, as in airport departure lounge or privileged-access shopping mall, here at Handelmann's is the World City signature: the spotless surfaces, the entrancing gloss, the perfection of appearance that entirely captures the attention. Dion feels his submission as a relief. The images of decay that threaten to overwhelm him are cast back into the shadows for a few moments more. He doesn't want to think about death and dissolution. He wants the light anaesthesia of World City to carry him through to the next deal and the next, further and further away from anything that might really matter, on and on towards a life that lasts forever. But neither does he want to think about life eternal – which is difficult; because, whether he likes it or not, a crack has formed in his barriers against that. Dion wonders whether the crack will widen. It all depends on the ingenuity of the salesman – her salesman – Miranda Whitlam, when he had last known her.

1

The old woman stepped, with careful, conscious grace, up the long, steep path that led to the gun emplacements. Clear after rain, the early evening sky was like some great jewel arcing over the island. She paused halfway to take in the sky and the freshened air, so transparent that the peak of Morne Diablotin, nine miles distant, was like a picture she could reach out and touch. The conditions were not ideal. She would have preferred the atmosphere closer, heavier; charged like it had been the night before. Clarity and freshness were fine for the Catholics, and anyone else who liked to look heavenward, but she wanted her attention on the earth. She wanted the density of rain and thunder, vapour rising from the ground, the smell of wet, decaying vegetation. But it was clear and fresh, so clarity and freshness would have to do.

A single, corroded cannon remained at the top of the path, its barrel still poking impotently out towards the deep twilight-blue of the Caribbean Sea. Stopping beside it, she wondered how long since the weapon had last hurled out anything in anger. An image came and she felt a dead weight flying through the air, curving down towards some vulnerable little craft in the bay below. She muttered a brief invocation and another image came to her, this time of a sizeable splash of water. She smiled then lifted her eyes away from the bay and back to the mountains, now purple in the dusk. The white cockerel she was carrying gave a furious squawk and began flapping wildly. She shook it by the legs and it quietened, hanging inverted in her grip, its mad eyes casting about in the upside-down world for something to rekindle its rage. But her eyes never left the mountains and for five full minutes she breathed in their deepening colour. The mountains were a strength – obviously – but who bothered to use that now?

She headed along the path a little way further then turned into the trees that now formed the back wall of the derelict fortifications. Another short walk and she was in a clearing that had once been the parade ground. To one side were ruined stone buildings that had once been the barracks and guardhouses. Their windows were now empty and they were roofed by trees that grew from gaps between the jumbled flagstones, their walls no longer held together by mortar but by the binding strength of knotted creepers that crawled across the facades.

The old woman walked directly to the middle of the clearing and casually dropped the cock and her bag of accessories. Then she stepped back along the path she had entered by, turning off after a hundred yards to commence a long, circular sweep around the perimeter of the derelict military base. She muttered as she went and kept her eyes resolutely fixed on where she would place her next step. Her muttering was like some natural sound – the waves on the rocks below or the wind in the leaves of the trees – and the track she created through the tropical vegetation was like that of an animal pacing out some instinctive territorial ritual, entirely a part of the world it moved within.

After about ten minutes she was back at the path and she stopped briefly to close the circle. The Cabrits was a popular enough place, although at twilight only a tourist would be stupid enough to go scrambling among the ruins. There were tourists, however, and with the circle in place she could be sure of remaining undisturbed. Anyone who might follow her track would find their intention diverted: some other path would seem more appealing; they would remember something they urgently needed elsewhere; they would decide to go for a drink.

She shuffled back into the centre of the barracks' square and began tugging at the objects jumbled together in her bag, the trussed cock watching her all the while with careful malevolence, as if she were some more powerful rival that could only be lacerated by subterfuge. She placed the objects somewhat haphazardly in a half-circle small enough for her to stand in and reach out to each one. She surveyed in turn a tiny bone, a child's plaster Nativity model, a family photograph, some seeds, a doctor's letter and a battered white rose. Softly, she began to hum a gentle, directionless thread of half-tones, accentuating in her awareness the qualities each object evoked. She let the sound build more strongly and with it her sense of the small collection of emblems. As the sound meandered, she began to release from her hand a carefully measured stream of white powder. It fell within the half-circle of emblems and created a curly pattern like wrought iron. When her design was completed, she stopped to consider it. Everything was placed as it should be. Nothing intruded that might call down anything other than the one she wanted. She let a stillness in her begin to build.

Then, abruptly, she looked up. Shocked momentarily, she found her gaze swinging wildly around the clearing. Aware of her disorder, she deliberately set up a slow, steady rhythm of breathing, allowed the stillness to return and let her gaze come to rest. She looked where her gaze led, directly into the whites of two eyes that were staring at her from the darkness of a lower range of ruined windows. She held the stare and allowed the stillness in her to deepen. The eyes on her had been tiny pinpoints of attention, present in her awareness some moments before she had seen them. She felt no fear, nor anger, nor any sense of threat. She permitted a slight relaxation and found some amusement in herself. She nodded her head from side to side, curious now to identify the intruder.

“Come here,” she said gently.

The eyes vanished and a small figure, at first no more than a shadow, appeared beyond the far end of the crumbling blockhouse. The figure paused. The old woman noted its hesitation and found herself approving.

“Come on,” she called.

A small boy resolved himself from the darkening wall of ruin and jungle. He walked slowly towards her and stopped about ten feet from where she had set out her objects. She had recognised him the moment he had come out of hiding.

“So, Grandson,” she said, “How you get through my circle?”

“I was asleep,” he lied.

He had indeed been asleep – but much earlier. He had slipped away from school after the afternoon register and had gone up to the ruined fortifications to explore. In the gaps where creepers had forced apart the stones, there was a particular kind of insect and if he poked a grass stalk into the cracks, the creatures would catch hold and he could pull them out and set them down on a convenient ledge. There they stood, belligerently immobile. They had pale green wings like delicate, semi-transparent leaves and he would get up close and stare into their alien eyes, so close that their long, speculative antennae would be almost brushing his nose.

“You were asleep,” his grandmother said with a slight smile. “I wonder when that was.”

He had arrived at the ruins when the afternoon sun had still been high, burnishing the sky and spreading a pervasive heat. The heat and the absolute stillness of the glade and the old stones had seeped in and stilled his tides of restlessness and he had curled up to doze away the hottest part of the day. Then he had made his explorations, found his insects and had been about to return when he saw the figure of his grandmother far below. Somehow, he had accurately backed up along the path she would take so that when she made her circle he, too, was enclosed within it.

“So, you want to see what I do? Well, well, you got to see what I do now, Grandson, because I not having you break my circle.”

He watched, at ease with the old woman despite the novelty of her actions. She had been a part of his life as far back as he could remember.

She picked up the cock, hesitated, and said, “You see? Him white,” challenging, as if answering some implicit criticism in the boy's gaze. Resuming her humming, she passed the bird several times over the pattern on the ground and around her little gathering of objects. Then she reached into the folds of her full, dark skirt, produced a knife and cut the cock's throat, casually, as if chopping dasheen, mind elsewhere.

The boy saw the knife go in and the blood begin to pour. Normally, chickens were killed by wringing their necks, although he had seen a few throats cut before. Normally, he was intrigued by the way the creatures' bodies would twitch and their legs pound and claw long after their eyes had blanked out. But this was different. The way the knife had passed across the bird's throat was different. The blood that flowed was different. He had almost felt the cutting sharpness of the blade, and even in the twilight the blood seemed redder than any red he had seen before. The blood flowed with a life of its own; a life that had hitherto inhabited the body of the bird, but which now flowed out through the gap that had been made in its substance. The bird's wings suddenly beat furiously and its body convulsed. The boy watched as the life poured out and he saw the mad gleam in the bird's eye flare and dim as the life flowed out.

The crimson rain fell over the tiny bone, drenching it entirely; it fell, spattering the Nativity model, covering Jesus in his crib, covering the photograph of the mother, father and their small son. The blood fell over them all, like a benediction, a red river joining the Christ of the Nativity with the smiling family. The blood soaked the seeds and the dry earth around, settling the seeds into the ground. It splashed across the letter, blurring the line of words as their ink dissolved. Finally, the boy watched the blood fall on the bruised white petals of the rose. He was still staring at the red tears on the soft white petals when he became aware again of his grandmother's voice.

“Come on,” he heard her say, as she continued to sprinkle the blood. “Where are you then?” And he felt a sudden pull in the pit of his stomach as something that might have been a great, dark bird wheeled around from behind the ruined blockhouse where he had been hiding. It swept across the clearing and, as it passed over his head, he cried out involuntarily.

Sprinkling the last of the blood, his grandmother laughed softly and whispered, “You see ‘im, eh? That good. He come no problem. Maybe he like you. Maybe you come with me again some time.”

She reached into her bag, pulled out a trowel and began to dig methodically. As she worked, she said, “Baptiste Charles who works down the packing station, that him,” inclining her head towards the blood-spattered photograph, “And his wife Josephine, you know? – the ones who live out on the plantation road. Course you know. The little boy is Edward, that boy you got friendly with before they took him away. You recognise him? This before he get that sickness.”

She paused to consider the extent of the hole she had dug, took out a few more trowels of earth, then placed the objects carefully in the depression and covered them over. She tamped the earth down hard with the heel of her foot and spread some leaves and twigs over, then more earth until there was not the slightest sign the ground might have been disturbed. “Anyhow, that'll do the trick,” she concluded – like a doctor handing over a pack of pills. “Edward be right in no time.” And, turning her head along the path the great bird shadow had taken, “Him know what to do.”

But the boy was hardly listening. In the instant the shadow had passed over him, the world had changed. His grandmother's words faded and in their place he heard the loud, raucous drone of the night insects growing towards its highest pitch. He heard the hiss of the land breeze slipping through the tops of the trees and beyond that, the soft detonation of waves breaking on the shore far below. In the hot twilight, he heard the minibus on the road out of Portsmouth and the driver singing, and the shouts of the boys playing football on the narrow strip of black sand a few miles to the south. He heard the men arguing and laughing outside a rum shop in Roseau, the amplified explosions of the action movie showing in the cinema and the cheers of the audience, music sounding from the bars south of the town and a police siren in Soufrière. Then he heard the roar of mountain torrents far inland, swollen by rain from the day before, tumbling over the stones in the stream beds, cascading over high rocks and down through the forests. He heard the bubbles of gas rising in the sulphur springs, the beat of birds' wings as they headed for their roost, and the ocean wind blowing down the ravines and valleys, setting up a steady rustle in the leaves of the fruit plantations. He heard the harder crash of the waves breaking on the ocean side of the island and the white hiss of the water pulling back across the sand, rippling in pools around the base of salt-bleached logs and then again the crash of a new wave breaking. He could hear the entirety of the island. He could hear it, feel it, touch it, smell it. His entire awareness possessed and was possessed by the island. He knew its every intimate detail. He could sense the rhythm of its breathing, the current of its life.

Then, after the instant of expansion, his attention relaxed into a single, distant place deep in the body of the island. He was in a high mountain valley crowded with jungle and tumbled rock. There was a waterfall and dark, rushing water splashing among the boulders. Only the slightest breeze shifted the fronds of the tree ferns. A bird called in the twilight. Everything in the valley was alive – the water, the rocks and the air – everything was suffused with an awareness of its own. The valley had no name; no human had ever set foot there. This was his home; his place, where he could be absolutely himself. Here, he would never die. Here, the person he had become in the instant that the great bird shadow had passed over him could live forever and ever.

Later, as his grandmother led him unerringly down the dark path, he heard his parents calling for him, “Dion, Dion.”

BOOK: In World City
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