1. In which the author gives some account of the inducements and circumstances leading up to the commencement of the Vestral
BOTH my parents were engineers, content to tinker with mechanisms and watch ratchets engage. They had no time for friction.
I grew from child to adult seeking other causations, studying anatomy and pathology. To satisfy an impulse for encounters with rare diseases in unfamiliar environments, I secured a position as the ship’s surgeon aboard a stout vessel with a diligent captain and crew, bound for the colonies.
A month out and violent storms struck us. I was cast into the void, alone in a lifeboat. My small craft bobbed across the days following like a twig adrift in the swirl of a wide river. Much of the time, unable to exercise, I rested on a bunk, staring at the stars and imagining their attendant planets, ice-frozen, crater-pocked or emblazoned with dancing colours and luxuriant fertility, as our own.
With my rations all consumed, I fell into a fitful sleep, only to dream of spiralling downwards, a fierce beam stinging my eyes, tear-drops of sweat sliding over cheeks and neck, the stench of burning…
I sat up.
The lifeboat was descending, in clear daylight, at considerable speed, towards an expanse of grey swamp. And it was on fire.
We crashed with a splash into what must be water. Forgetting completely that I had been expecting to die quite soon, I forced open the hatch and, as the waves poured in, pushed up and out, determined now to stay alive.
I saw at once that I had been deposited in a sea, which was calm, if chilly, under a blue sky flecked with wisps of cloud. To my right were cliffs, curving into a narrow bay. Though not a strong swimmer, I progressed at a steady pace towards the coastline, before eventually collapsing, exhausted, on the bare sand.
I came ashore, I was told later, at ‘about half past five’ on a Thursday evening in September.
By my reckoning, it was the Height of Lirpa in the year 773, 4th Epoch, back on my own world.
2. The author’s first experiences in the land
WHEN I had rested, I looked about me.
The features and tone of the landscape bore such a resemblance to those of Rheta that I was led to deduce that my lifeboat had been fitted with an ingenious navigational device, thus automatically steering a course back to my home planet.
I would have taken off at once had I not been arrested by two simultaneous sounds: a shout from inland and a distant rumbling.
The source of the former I identified as hailing from a figure hurrying down towards the beach. S·he halted briefly to call out in a language I did not recognise, but, from the accompanying gestures, I surmised I was being advised to seek shelter in a cave at the base of the cliff to my left.
It was impossible to deduce whence came the vibrating growl, but I sensed the unseen threat of a creature from the depths, possibly a vast, hideous serpent, seeking revenge on the careless castaway who had offered it an indigestible space capsule for lunch.
This whirring noise grew louder and closer. It appeared to originate from above, and, as I reached the cave, there came into view, just beyond the headland, an object as curious and menacing as anything I had seen since a childhood encounter with a pair of rattled rattlesnakes.
It was a species of giant wasp or hornet, with large, domed head and fleam-like, black antennae; a grotesque gadfly of marsh green and mud brown; a flying insect of such prodigious proportions that a nest of these creatures must be a deafening city, terrifyingly foul.
As if to affirm this conceit, two more of its kind appeared and the triad of drones flew on, moving away from the land. The directness of their flight and the tucka-tucka sound of their wings tempted me to wonder, momentarily, if they were but caricature representations, akin to the huge kites flown at festivals.
However, I quickly dismissed this notion on the grounds that nobody would deliberately construct anything so gruesome or so obstreperous.
3. A meeting with one of the inhabitants
ARMS are for wrapping, hands for clapping, as we are often told.
When the man who had warned me of the drones drew near, I prepared to greet him in the customary Rhetan manner: smile, look in the eye, speak your name and offer an embrace. It was at once apparent that he and I had differing expectations.
Rather than looking directly at me, he inspected my overall appearance, with his arms crossed in front of his chest, as if I had antagonised him. The lips formed not into a smile, but a spout, through which he poured out a name of some twenty syllables, announced in an urgent, imperious tone.
Fuangabow – for that was the overture to the opus of the man’s name – was tall, bony, brown-haired and in the early years of his fifth decade. The pallor of his skin and a shortage of breath after rushing down the track indicated ill-health. All his facial hair had been removed.
His apparel reminded me of those stark drawings I have come across in history books: the grey leggings, the white shift with a vertical line of studs, the dark halter looped through a rigid collar and knotted under the throat. His left hand reached up to this tether, which he loosened with a tug, enabling him to unclasp the stud at the neck. As he did so, I noticed a cumbersome metal band on his wrist.
Movement and manacle thus verified his status as that of a forlorn serf.
Had he recently fled the city of the drones? Did he seek others not yet enslaved? Had he left some hide-out in the woods, risking capture in order to caution me against the perils of this place? Was the gesture with halter and collar-stud symbolic of a hoped-for fraternity?
These and many other questions did I, a newcomer to this land, wish to ask of my tense and troubled companion.
Some time would elapse before I discovered that his name was not Fuangabow-blah-blah-blah-woodwie, but Martin, and that such attire and mannerisms are commonplace among those of his people who are called ‘business men’.
4. More unexpected diversions
WITH a beckoning of his fingers, Fuang urged me to follow him. We set off up a track leading from the bay towards higher ground.
Although tired and needing sustenance, I took comfort from the climb, delighting in the warm rills of sand playing over my feet and the evensong of small life murmuring from thicket and undergrowth.
I espied clusters of berries amidst the foliage, clapping my hands to attract Fuang’s attention, picking one and holding it to my lips. He nodded assent and I placed the soft fruit on my tongue, savouring the coincidence of fleshes before rupturing the scarfskin. It was as succulent and satisfying as any Rhetan brambleberry. I plucked and devoured many more.
At the top of the path, a plateau sprawled before us: fields of corn, sheep, orchards and barns.
Overshadowing this pleasant vista, however, were the thick, steel cables and skeletal limbs of a towering fence, stretching across and beyond the furthest hills – clearly the outer boundary of a compound. The terrain revealed other clues. To my right, on a bare headland, were strict rows of small white hovels, where, I surmised, the most wretched of the giants’ serfs were housed, for the enclosure afforded no shelter from storm, gale or scalding sun.
Fuang suddenly called out, pointing to the sea.
The drones were hovering above the water. From openings in their abdomens, human figures, black-clad and weighed down by large yellow stones, were being disgorged into the waves, to sink beneath the circles of foaming brine and disappear from sight.
Fuang indicated we should go. I nodded, turning away from this haunting scene of brutal punishment.
Shipwrecked on an island where I knew nothing of the inhabitants or contrivances, I had already witnessed several improbable and cruel phenomena. These I had attempted to assimilate, but found only to be deeply disturbing.
I trust that the reader will pardon Virgulle if she appears to have behaved like a complete and utter plonker.
5. A mode of transport described
EACH step along the way is a long way, as we are often told.
The path brought us to a stile, beyond which lay a greystone highway with a fierce yellow border. In a siding stood four metal cages.
An elderly female was opening the rear section of one of the cages. Two dogs emerged, to whose collars she quickly attached leashes – even animals here were lackeys, apparently. I wished to greet the woman, but Fuang hissed a warning and placed a finger to his lips, cautioning silence.
From a leggings pocket he took a small device and pointed it at the nearest cage. Amber lights flickered in response and Fuang opened a door in the side, hastening me to enter and be seated. Dials and gauges were arrayed along the front shelf. On a longer seat behind mine were a jacket of the same colour as his leggings, a black box, many bound papers and countless discarded wrappings.
He inserted the device into an aperture below the wheel in front of him. The roar of a male voice filled the cage. Fuang scowled, pressing a button on the shelf, at which the din abruptly ceased. Had we been issued an order or warning? Was that the voice of one of the giants?
Fuang grasped the helm, moved a floor lever, and looked over his shoulder, probably to check that the female guard would not prevent our escape. Suddenly, the cage began to move. To my astonishment, it moved not upwards or forwards, but backwards.
I have since been conveyed in many such vehicles, but progress is often hindered by congested highways and occupants can become irritable, resulting in the cage rage associated with noble beasts similarly deprived of freedom. Cages also occasionally accidentally damage or destroy those who accidentally get in their way.
It would be sensible, therefore, if the giants were to reinstate a regulation favoured at the time of the earliest powered cages, for, surely, these transports should again be preceded by a pedestrian bearing a red flag as a signal of potential peril.
6. Fuang takes the author to his cell
DRUG absorption, I soon discovered, is how the majority of the serfs suppress their fears, anger, feelings of isolation or distress. The giants ensure that supplies of soporifics and analgesics are readily available in the form of tablets, alcohol and other disguises.
One of the smoke-screens favoured by Fuang induced him to emit his own screen of smoke.
Having steered the cage out of the siding and on to the highway, he took a thin white stick from a box on the shelf, placed it between his lips and ignited one end with a small burner. The disagreeable fumes of this opiate caused me to cough, whereupon Fuang activated controls that slid open both a section of the roof and the glass panel to my left, enabling me to gain some relief by inhaling the external air.
He began gabbling excitedly into a compact communications device held up to his left ear, allowing me to survey the passing scenery.
Plants grew and birds flew, but everything seemed reduced, held in check: too few wild flowers and too many tamed fields. Each roadside dwelling was surrounded by a wall or fence. Fruit trees and lawns inside these pens suggested that the serfs housed here had been granted modest privileges. Nevertheless, signal receptors and metal limpets below the eaves of the buildings were instant reminders of a malevolent intrusiveness.
Fuang steered the cage on to a narrower road, thence down a maze of lanes, and finally through a gateway, halting outside a two-storey cottage with tiny windows and white walls.
Entering the building involved more keys, devices and bleepers, but once the door was closed and he had pressed some buttons on a wall-panel – maybe to signal his return or affirm himself the rightful occupant of the cell – Fuang became more relaxed.
Now was the moment, I decided, that I would endeavour to impress upon him, using common gestures and sounds, the urgency with which I needs must rid myself of the discomforting pressure on my bladder.
7. Certain tensions relieved
ONCE inside Fuang’s cottage, I enacted the pantomime I had planned, pointing to my lower abdomen, then squatting and making a hissing sound while grimacing to show my adversity.
He smiled at my antics, led me up some stairs, opened a door, bowed his head, and left me alone, at last, to my ablutions. I chose to immerse my face in a basin of warm water rather than remove my shift and bathe in the tub. A mirror showed that my hair needed attention, but I preferred not to use the only available comb, which looked somewhat entangled and unloved.
I examined a folded set of papers which protruded from a wicker basket.
On the outer pages were large, black symbols and colour portraits, one of a male dance trio doing something with a ball. The paper being light and thin, I unwrapped the first sheet carefully, discovering similar images and a printed script I did not recognise.
The next page depicted a young woman, naked but for a thong, smiling at me in a friendly manner. I smiled back, tucked her away and returned the papers to the basket.
I found Fuang downstairs, in a room suffocated by drug-smoke and belongings, gabbling into a communicator. He gestured towards a chair, but I remained standing and he soon ceased talking into the device. I seized the moment to address him:
I bowed my head slightly. He replied with four short sounds, which I then repeated back to him:
“Wott… o… yare… rite.”
Thrice more I told him my name, at which point he made a not unconvincing attempt at pronouncing it himself. I nodded, regarding him quizzically, hoping that he would reciprocate, which, thankfully, he did, though not without a little prompting and a certain bashfulness.
“O K Martin.”
“O K Martin,” I repeated.
“Know… know… juss Martin.”
“Know… know… juss Martin.”
“Know… R… Martin.”
He stood up, took a pace towards me and tapped his chest with his forefinger.
He sighed. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
8. Of liquid refreshment and a new arrival
OVER the next few hours Martin became more affable, no doubt as a result of his eagerness for the contents of an item of furniture known as the ‘drinks cabinet’. Indeed, he went directly to this small warehouse as soon as we had acknowledged each other’s names.
“Tuck Healer, Back Hardy, Brand E…”
I hesitated, wishing neither to offend him nor to choose something unpalatable.
“…Bay Lees, Sweet Martin E, Dry Martin E, Pills…”
At which point I indicated that I wished to try one of the bottles of his own wine. He poured some of the darker fluid into a glass, which he handed to me. I perceived a slight aroma of wormwood, cautioning me not to imbibe large quantities and causing me to wonder if the inclusion of the insect-repelling herb in the recipe for this liquor afforded Martin additional protection against attack by the giant drones.
Before I could taste the infusion, however, there was a ritual to follow, which Martin insisted upon repeating whenever he drank from his collection. He tapped his glass gently against mine.
After I repeated the word, he held his own glass up in the air, as though signalling to a person in the distance, while intoning the chant…
“Hears two, the Jack Pot. The Jack Pot.”
…which I also repeated, whereupon we each took a sip of our beverages.
An alarm then sounded and Martin left the room, returning almost immediately with a pink-faced, grey-eyed man with no facial and only sparse cranial hair. The newcomer immediately grasped my right hand in his, moving it up and down, an action that surprised me a little, but which I assumed was a way of appraising my physical condition.
“Gary, Virgulle… Virgulle, Gary,” insisted Martin, with a chuckle.
Although this Gary wore the tether and wristband of a serf, he was by no means undernourished, for the sag of his belly proudly proclaimed such a fondness for puddings that he appeared to have also swallowed the mixing bowl.
“Please tum eat you,” he said.
9. The author participates in a familiar game
GARY had brought with him a satchel of papers, the contents of which he and Martin began discussing in loud, frenzied voices. They ignited drug-sticks. I left the room, seeking the quiet of my bed chamber and an opportunity for slumber.
The following morning, Martin offered me bland sustenance in the form of dried, toasted curls of corn, served in milk, to which I added slices of over-ripe fruit.
The refreshment was bestowed with haste, implying obligation, leading me to wonder if he regretted having rescued me from the giants. Was my presence a responsibility he wished to recant? Had he never previously met anyone from another land? Or was he simply diffident when conversing with women?
Differences need not be difficulties, as we are often told… but perhaps Martin hadn’t heard that one.
At which point, the door alarm sounded, giving me hope of better sport.
And I was not disappointed, for Martin returned with a woman, whom he was guiding into the room, as if playing a game popular with children on Rheta.
Gary followed, leading a man carrying several mechanical devices. Both newcomers wore eye-masks, but their posture and expressions suggested opposing attitudes to the burlesque: she making light of the jest, while he cursed and rubbed his shin, which had obviously collided with something in the entrance corridor.
The man reached up to remove his mask, but Gary stopped him with a curt command.
I laughed. If the four outlaws wished to play touch-me-tell-me, then I would play too.
Putting a finger to my lips to advise Martin and Gary to remain silent, I quickly removed my shift and stepped forward, smiling, much in the manner of the young woman I had seen in the folded papers in the bathroom basket.
Whereupon I unfurled myself to the fullest extent, before taking one of each of the strangers’ hands in mine and thus allowing them both, still unseeing, to feel, with the tips of their fingers, the tips of the feathers of my wings.
10. The author is given an examination
CALL me crazy, if you will, but how was I supposed to know that the two characters who appeared on the previous page were from the press? Give me a break! I’d only been here a day.
(Arthur isn’t sure about that last paragraph, but I believe unexpected jolts are what readers like nowadays. Anyway, I do not intend to delete it.)
Talking of removing things, I was not entirely naked when the journalist and photographer were told by a spluttering Gary that they could take off their blindfolds.
Martin’s wardrobe contained no female apparel, but he had given me an old pair of loose leggings, nylon shorts for underwear and a few short-sleeved smocks. I was wearing only the shorts in those first photographs.
It did not take long for Kirsty, the reporter, to persuade the men that she and I needed time together in private.
Once in my room, she insisted that we sit side by side on the bed. I assumed she was a physician – probably sent by the rebel leader, Jack Pot, to assess my physical well-being – for she spent many minutes examining the ligaments, glenoids and coracoids of my upper back, as well as the calamus and rachis of individual feathers.
“Free key,” she exclaimed, several times.
She recorded her findings in a small, wire-bound book and muttered phrases implying curiosity and concern. On completing her inspection, however, she quickly departed, confounding the notion I had had about her interest in my welfare.
Kirsty it was, apparently, who arranged for me to be sent a hamper of clothes the next day. Martin said she thought them befitting a woman in what she called ‘the headlines’, but all the garments were uncomfortably tight and I chose not to wear them. One unfamiliar item, which was as complicated to put on as it was unnecessary, I thrust into my satchel, as a souvenir of the many oddities of this world.
I recall seeing it recently, in the shed, slung between two rafters, with a candle in one cup and a cricket ball in the other.
11. On being alone
CELL life soon became tedious. I craved the caress of the wind, the kiss of the rain.
I was, however, beholden to Martin, for both his courtesies and the risks taken in rescuing me from the drones. I knew I must curb my impatience until he deemed it appropriate for my presence to become more widely acknowledged.
He gave me food, a bed, a toothbrush, and a device with ear attachments, which allowed me to listen to something called ‘mud honour’.
I was shown images on a cabinet: serfs sitting at desks; people arguing, smiling, preparing food, painting walls; squat cages hurrying after each other round winding tracks; monochrome pictures of macabre scientific experiments in a remote castle. It was all very dull.
We are each alone. According to the constructs of the wise, the nub of our aseity is situated behind and above the midway point between the eyes. There lies the core of consciousness and sensation; there noesis and experience sit in judgment; there perception and ego meet for lunch. It is not, however, a sunlit balcony. Peer hard at this kernel and its colour is dark, its shape that of a recess or hollow. Fortunately, and intuitively, we reach out – from the comfort of the mother’s breast to the companionship of friends to the commonwealth of the night sky. Soothed by the familiar and thrilled by the new, our aloneness shrinks to accommodate other wonders. We extend the sturdy branches of our arms in a widening embrace and even if we are abandoned, cut off or uprooted, we somehow find comfort in the stone-strewn wilderness.
So it was that the Vestral became my pillow, when feelings of solitude and yearnings for my own homeland were so powerful that I could not but weep.
Then, fortunately, I found, in a cardboard container under the bed, a collection of illustrations which would lead to the diversion I sought and eventually give me the wherewithal required when, like David in one of the fables of this land, I was compelled to confront the giants.
12. Attention drawn
I HAD often examined the assortment of unusual items in the room where I slept. Most seemed to be keepsakes from Martin’s younger years and were of little interest to me, until I came across a box, containing colourful paper collections of stories.
I was nonchalantly turning the pages when, suddenly, I beheld a tall serf with a thin moustache, wearing a book-shaped hat. A group of grinning youngsters were also depicted. They seemed to be paying no heed to the white symbols he was writing on a black section of a wall.
I knew at once that I must show these sketches to Martin, for here, at last, was a contrivance I could use to communicate my wishes.
Clutching the papers to my chest, I hurried downstairs. He and Gary were staring at the thing called television.
“Martin! Gary! Virgulle, one!” I demanded, showing them the page featuring the tall serf.
They looked at each other nervously, but did nothing to indicate that they had understood. I repeated the action several times before taking a writing implement and piece of paper from the table and quickly drawing my own likeness of a serf with a book-hat, then some symbols inside an oblong, and finally a winged woman, drawing copies of the symbols.
I sat at the table, took another sheet and stared at them, waiting, open and joyful, trying to look like one of the smiling children in the story.
“T-cha!” cried Gary. I didn’t know what he meant, but his face suggested he was getting the picture.
On the long chair in the middle of the room was a black wallet. I picked this up and rested it on top of Gary’s head, taking hold of his wrist and placing his hand on top of the wallet so it would not fall. I held up the drawing.
“Gary… T-cha,” I explained.
“Know weigh!” he replied, removing the heavy wallet from his head.
But I knew that he knew what I wanted. And he knew that I knew that he knew. And I was not going to let it go.
“T-cha! T-cha! T-cha!” I chanted. And continued to do so for the next full hour or more.
13. How a protest led to progress
“T-CHA! T-cha! T-cha!”
So it was that I chanted my demand, as if trying to work a spell, while Martin and Gary delayed, debated, deliberated and demonstrated their anxiety, bewilderment, displeasure and discordance, until, eventually, Martin departed the cell, leaving Gary to console me with overtures of kindness and attempts, unsuccessful, to persuade me to cease my lament, until, at last, Martin returned with an unshaven male of my height, who wore no serf’s insignia and who, on being introduced to me as T-cha, shrugged, smiled, looked me straight in the eye and seemed to be opening his arms in the Rhetan manner of greeting a stranger.
He spoke quietly. I stepped forward, told him I was Virgulle and welcomed his embrace.
Gary hurried to the drinks cabinet, but Arthur wished only for a tumbler of water and there was to be no Jack Pot ceremony on this occasion. The three men talked while I remained sitting at the table with my drawing. Gary showed him the cartoon story and Arthur laughed. He looked at my hurried sketch and nodded.
Whenever Arthur looked in my direction, he smiled. He wore a white singlet, plain leggings and sandals. His skin was darker than that of the others, the hands rougher, the hair less kempt. I thought him likely to be a forester, tinker or beachcomber. He may not be versed in the skills of tuition, but there was a straightforwardness to his manner I found amiable.
Martin took a wallet from the lining of his jacket and gave Arthur three identical papers with blue markings. Perhaps these contained secret messages which would explain why Martin had been keeping them hidden, but Arthur put them into a leggings pocket, without reading them, as if thinking them unimportant.
When their conference ended, he sat by me at the table, placing a hand on mine.
“Virgulle, I am Arthur. I will be your teacher. Shall we?”
He picked up my drawing and gestured towards the door, inviting me to lead the way out of the room.
14. A first language lesson
“Kids,” I repeated.
Arthur was holding up an item of footwear. From the moment we had entered my sleeping quarters, he had, to my astonishment, started carrying out many of the transformations I had not undertaken lest I offend Martin or the child who usually slept there. Whether Arthur had been granted licence to move the furniture and belongings, I had no way of ascertaining, but he was intent on arranging things to his own satisfaction and did so with alacrity.
He paused and looked at me. I sensed him trying not to laugh.
Lest he also take my few belongings and place them in a drawer, I gathered them up and sat with them next to me on the bed.
He cleared a small table and carried it to a position under the window, setting alongside it the one chair in the room, which had previously been laden with clothing and assorted boxes. On the table he placed a pile of bare paper, two pens, my drawing and the illustrations I had found earlier.
I reasoned that he was ready to start the lesson and prepared to go and sit in the chair, but he sat on the bed and pointed to my few possessions.
He took hold of my hand.
“Yes… hand,” I told him.
“Yes, Virgulle. Good,” he smiled. “Now… finger… fingers…”
And thus I began to learn. He would touch something and name it. I would touch it too and repeat the word: arm, head, foot, toothbrush, towel, table, paper, various symbols written on the paper and then copied by me: hand, bed, water, good, smile, yes, teacher.
I became a child again, giggling at shapes, playing at scholarship, with no desire to sleep or eat, only to dive into valleys of vowels and fly over continents of… er… the other twenty-one letters. And when Arthur, moved almost to dance by the fun of our engagement, removed his sandals, I held one up, much as he had done earlier, and proudly proclaimed its name:
At last my confinement was no longer solitary.
15. The author indicates a wish for a change of scenery
LIPS, sun, lemon. Names of objects I was soon attempting to write as Arthur spoke them, though not always accurately: tummartoe, foetoegraff, qukumba, four eggs ample.
Nevertheless, I made swift progress in both speech and writing.
He took it upon himself to prepare our meals, which we ate in my room and often included fruit and vegetables harvested from his own garden. Once he brought with him a bottle of liquid with the scent of elder blossom, to which he added ice and water. Recalling the first time that I had tasted Martin’s alcohol, I tapped Arthur’s glass with mine.
“Chairs. Hears two, the Jack Pot.”
Arthur looked puzzled and asked me to repeat the salutation.
“No,” he affirmed. “Here’s two Virgulle… to life, to Happy Ness.”
I tried to explain Martin’s ritual, but it was all too complicated and I concluded that Arthur was no friend of Jack Pot’s, which made sense, for he was clearly not a serf and, therefore, unlikely to be one of the rebels. Was he not controlled by the giants at all? Could he roam free, wherever he wished? It was all very puzzling and I knew I could not begin fully to comprehend this world without seeing more of it.
I managed to convey to Arthur my need to take the air and Martin was eventually persuaded to grant my request, though he watched us keenly through the cell window and I suspect notified Arthur of restrictions he placed on where we might tread.
We were playing our own, unmasked, version of touch-me-tell-me with a sapling birch – trunk, branch, leaf – when I whispered:
“I want go.”
“Fine. Your turn.”
He placed his hands behind his back: an agreed signal for allowing the other to initiate some new learning.
“No. I want be go. Virgulle wants fly.”
“You want to go back to your world? Fly away home, ladybird?”
“I want not be Martin’s. I want go. I want Virgulle and Arthur go.”
And go we did, later that day, though in a manner I had not expected and with consequences that proved alarming.
16. Kitchen sink drama
FOOD preparation was not an undertaking in which Martin or Gary took any pleasure. When Arthur suggested I should be taught the workings of the kitchen, no objections were raised and I looked forward to assailing a room that was clearly in need of reorganisation, purification and a good going over with a damp cloth.
“Virgulle has a sir prize four you,” Arthur informed them. “She and eye are go wing to prip air a soup herb bank wit.”
“Grate,” Martin replied, without enthusiasm.
It soon became clear, however, that Arthur had other intentions. While teaching me various new names – sore-span, my-crow-wave, toe-stir – he wrote something in large letters on a piece of paper, which, cautioning silence, he handed to me to read, as he walked about, identifying other culinary items.
I GO. YOU FILL SATCHEL. BRING IT HERE. I COME HERE. WE GO.
I nodded and made an enthusiastic start on the muddle of misplaced utensils and clogged cooking pots.
Arthur soon left the cell, having advised Martin and Gary that he had to go and ‘purr chase sum inn greedy hunts’.
Elated by the expectancy of escape, I went up to my room and thrust a few belongings into a satchel Arthur had previously presented to me as a gift. I then spent a long time scrubbing, rinsing and wiping more pots until Arthur returned, carrying a large back-sack and entering through a door that led directly from the kitchen to the garden.
“Right, let’s get started!” he grinned.
He took a silver carton from the sack, consulted the writing on its wrapper, turned a dial on the cooking machine, and placed the carton inside. Suddenly he announced, loudly:
“Dam! I four got the most import—“
He left the room briefly to talk to Martin and Gary. On reappearing, he put a finger to his lips, grabbed the back-sack, motioned to me to pick up my satchel, led me by the hand towards the side door, opened it, shouted…
“I’ll be back in five, Virgulle! Chop chop!”
…and closed the door behind us as we made a swift departure.
17. Moving onward, looking back
RAIN, soft and refreshing, greeted our walk through the pen, out of the gate and along the stone highway to where a cage was waiting, on the roof of which I could read the name ‘Taxi’. As we entered the section containing the long seat, I noticed a figure at the helm, who set the cage in motion as soon as we had closed the side panel.
There was no shouting voice to accompany the sound of the engine starting, only Arthur, calmly reassuring me:
“Now, Virgulle, we go. No more Martin, no more house a rest.”
The cage took us up the twisting lanes of night. Between trees I caught glimpses of a lemon slice of moon. The highway seemed to pass a number of settlements, but I was more concerned to know our course’s destination, of which my rescuer gave only an ambiguous hint:
“Where go we, Arthur?”
“Be and be.”
I did his bidding and spoke no more, despite having many pressing enquiries. I sensed Arthur did not wish any conversation between us to be overheard by Mr Taxi.
The cage rolled on.
Arthur took a plastic canister from his back-sack and offered me fruit, cheese and some thin biscuits. These, I would hazard, left a sweeter taste in the mouth than that being savoured by Martin and Gary, assuming that they had, by now, gone into the kitchen and noticed the absence of their cooks.
It would be many months before Arthur explained to me how he had spent the previous hours: collecting provisions, seeking new accommodation, and despatching through the postal service a package to Martin and Gary, which returned the monies paid to Arthur for the language lessons, along with a letter, in which he insisted he was acting in what he identified as my best interests: a guest in this land, I should be granted opportunities to learn from wider day-to-day experiences; moreover, having my photograph printed in certain newspapers was neither necessary nor justified.
Arthur still smiles when recalling the closing words of that missive:
PS Your dinner’s in the oven.
18. An absence and an arrival
TAXI spoke not a word as the cage continued in the direction of Be and Be. Arthur too remained silent, closing his eyes as if needing sleep, though I detected a tension in his breathing and the twitch of his fingers.
The interior of the cage afforded no light for either writing or reading, leaving me to reflect upon the activities of the day.
If Arthur lived near to Martin, as he had told me, why had we not gone to his home? Would not travelling inland take us closer to the giants? Had he perhaps been instructed to lead me into their presence?
I recalled too a sensation experienced when packing my satchel, shortly before our departure. Something was missing.
Roused by the prospect of being freed from Martin’s cell, I had stood for a while by the open window, watching the dance of distant trees. Birds whistled, insects hummed and human percussion broke in with beat of hammer and roll of cage, but one player remained mute throughout.
I shuddered. Suddenly it all made terrible, desperate sense: I knew why there was disharmony in this world. Nowhere, not once in the sonata of a sunny afternoon, had I heard the voices of children.
“We are all most at the Be and Be.”
Arthur’s quiet tone allayed my immediate anxieties, but I determined to question him on this disquieting conclusion at the earliest opportunity.
He took from his sack a pair of woollen socks and two short boots.
“Wood you please put these on?”
I shook my head, needing neither: Rhetans don footwear only occasionally: when thinning nettles, for example, or as apparel for certain dances.
For a moment I sensed Arthur was going to remonstrate with me, but he nodded, smiled and patted my hand, while the cage slowed to a halt alongside a low wall, behind which stood a house with bright lights in several windows.
We alighted. Arthur gave Mr Taxi his thanks and two inked papers. The cage departed.
A post attached to the wall confirmed that this was indeed the home of someone known as B-squiggle-B.
19. An unsettling welcome
THIN, upright and fair of skin was person B-squiggle-B. She wore her spectacles in an unusual place: resting on her bosom, attached to a necklace.
“Ar yes. A twin room.”
“I am Virgulle. Hello.”
I stepped forward, ready to extend my hand for the routine examination of health, but her look was one of distance and disdain. She seemed troubled by my feet.
“Er… she… it’s a long story,” interposed Arthur.
We were in a carpeted hallway. There was a large clock on the wall.
“Ten to nine,” I declared, with pride. Arthur smiled.
For a moment B-squiggle-B stared at me, squinting, as if I had offended her in some way. Then she raised the spectacles from her chest, placed them on her nose and examined me again, before turning to address Arthur, with surprise in her tone.
“It’s the girl in the papers! Eye new eyed… oh my gored… the one from… yes, it’s deaf inn it lee you. Eye sore you in the sun.”
Arthur began talking too quickly for me to comprehend. I noted only his repetition of the phrase ‘Big Miss Take’, concluding that he was referring to one of the female giants.
Indeed, the very mention of the name of this figure served to quell B-squiggle-B’s agitation, for she was soon persuaded to part with two keys, in return for a coded message, which Arthur wrote on a sheet of paper torn from a small book of forms.
We ascended the stairs to a room called 2, the door to which Arthur opened with a key. I realised at once that the number on the door indicated the sleeping capacity, for the room contained only two small beds, two small cupboards, a wardrobe, a chair, a chest of drawers with apparatus for making hot drinks on it, and a shelf attached to the wall, on which sat the thing called television.
“No. We talk.”
“Good. I want go outside. See the sky, feel the wind.”
He shook his head, looking first at the keys he was holding, then straight at me.
“Virgulle. I am sorry. I am the one who has made a Big Miss Take.”
20. Suspicions vindicated
I PUT a hand in front of my eyes, which was our sign for not understanding.
Arthur, patient and helpful as always, took pen and paper from the back-sack, proceeding to drew a picture he called The Big Miss Take. It comprised a small representation of myself, with downturned mouth, surrounded by many larger figures, all of aggressive disposition.
With a deep sigh, he then took my hand and made me sit by him on the bed, speaking for a long time, often repeating words in order to help me understand. He did not wish to stop me from going outside, but was worried what would happen when people knew where to find me.
Crowds, he managed to explain, would gather and stare, or laugh or shout, and try to touch my wings. My picture had been printed on sheets of paper that people examined every day. Images of my lifeboat being taken from the waves had been seen on the thing called television, one or more of which were to be found in almost every house in the land.
He told me the many names of those who were already searching for me: Pleece, Me Dear, Papa Ratsy, Guvver Munt.
“Are they high people?” I asked.
“People high up? Yes.”
It was as I had suspected: the drones, the huge fence, Martin’s trappings of serfdom, the cages, pens, locks. Quickly I sketched a likeness of the ogre in the Rhetan fable of The Innocent Child and the Evil Varreds.
“High and strong?” I showed him the drawing.
“In a way, yes. Two big four their own boots. Like the jie-unt in your picture.”
I repeated the word and attempted to spell it. Arthur corrected me.
“G.I.A.N.T. Are there giants on Rheta?”
“They not live. We have giants of stories. Play giants. We laugh.”
“We laugh too, sum times. But the giants here have much power. Power to do ill. And the power to be Crew L to Virgulle,” he concluded, quietly.
I knew not what to say, so said nothing.
“Virgulle, I must teach you some new words.”
And he reached for the notebook, there to inscribe the letters F, E, A, R and H, E, L, L.
21. On being wary of strangers
Arthur suddenly stood up, the smile again brightening his face.
“Walk and talk time. I will not let silly giants roo in your first evening of free dumb.”
We tiptoed down the stairs, like children planning a surprise. B-squiggle-B was not in the hallway, enabling us to depart without being seen. A welcome breeze and the openness of the night sky filled me with a desire to fly up to its waiting arms.
“Brrr! Don’t you need a coat?”
“Well, I do! It’s chili. Sorry, Virgulle. We will have to go back to the room.”
“Go you. I go not.”
He hesitated. I walked over to a wooden bench by the wall of the house.
“I sit. I am waiting on the seat. You want coat, I not.”
“Two minutes. I will be back in two minutes. Do not move!”
“Yes. Not move.”
I pondered what Arthur had told me about fear: how the comfort of the known also feeds a nervousness towards the unknown, persuading the wary that it is wiser to remain inside the cell, to build higher and stronger walls against the foreigner, to withdraw from intercourse with all but those whose beliefs and perspectives are aligned to our own.
It is strange how some people view the stranger with apprehension rather than appreciation.
A low growl told of the approach of a cage, the light of its torches whitening the hedge to my left as it neared the house and stopped by the wall.
An impulse persuaded me to leave the bench and move to a corner where I would not be visible to anyone entering or leaving the pen. Arthur would soon return with his coat; surely.
Cage doors being opened and closed. Two people walking across stone, talking quietly, one female, one male. The ring of the door alarm, followed, almost immediately, by Arthur’s voice, greeting them.
They converse on the door-step. Does Arthur know them? B-squiggle-B must be there too, for she addresses the visitors in words I can clearly hear:
“Come in, offy sirs. She’s here. Upstairs. Room two.”
Whereupon all sound is swallowed by the closing of the door.
22. Night sight and flight
KEEN to glean what further information I could regarding the newcomers to the house of B-squiggle-B, I made my way to the rear of the building, there to position myself directly below the window of room 2. Although the drapes were closed, darts of shadow across the light and the murmur of speech confirmed the likelihood of earnest debate inside the room.
For the first time since my arrival in this land, I took to the air.
Hovering outside the window, however, did not afford me any clearer understanding of the activity within.
Therefore, I struck the pane lightly with a knuckle, in a bid to draw Arthur’s attention to my presence. The voices continuing unabated, I tapped again, several times and more forcefully, adding a questioning call…
… at which all conversation ceased, indicating that I had been successful.
There was a long silence.
(I should add that Arthur’s knowledge of my own tongue was minimal. Accepting it unlikely that he would ever visit Rheta, he had chosen not to seek reciprocal instruction in the language of my people. Consequently, he knew but a few common Rhetan expressions. It may, however, interest the reader to know that the urgent message he conveyed that night could best described as a ‘rolled f’, which can be produced by stammering that letter, as if unable to prevent the teeth from vibrating against the lower lip, as happens to young bathers, emerging from a cold sea or lake and seemingly immobilised, but for the chattering of their teeth. Ten such f’s, rolled together for approximately one second, make a sound that all Rhetans would recognise immediately.)
The drapes were tugged apart.
I beheld Arthur, close to the pane, and, beyond him, two serfs in dark clothing, startled of face. Also present was the fierce B-squiggle-B, staring, pointing, screeching words I could not comprehend.
My teacher did not look pleased to see me. He opened the pane and hissed:
“Go, Virgulle! Fly away, ladybird! Go! Now! Ffffffffff!”
23. An overview of the surrounding district
AWAY from the building I flew, rising above the nearby trees, swiftly distancing myself from the highway, for I surmised B-squiggle-B’s henchmen would soon be in pursuit.
The higher air was not ideal for hurried flight – gusts, folds and corners, but few chutes and no hammocks. Consequently, I soon dived into the neck of a valley, allowing the prevailing swirls to bear me over farmstead and field.
I could have continued gliding in this fashion for some hours, but did not wish to flee so far as to forget the way back. I reasoned that I should stay hidden until daybreak, before returning to the house in the hope of rejoining Arthur.
The distant orange glow warned of the approach of a large encampment. I began searching for somewhere to land, following a narrow track that led to a settlement of two dozen houses, many with lit windows. Beyond these dwellings appeared to be a dense wood, close to which, I decided, I would alight, there to find suitable shelter.
However, as I swooped towards the last building between me and the trees – a storehouse probably, for it was a tall structure with a number of cages lined up at its side – a door suddenly opened and four people emerged, talking loudly and apparently enjoying some merriment.
The reader does not need me to remind her·im that the eyes of a grown adult are set approximately one twelfth of the distance from the apex. Consequently, it is easier to look up than down. Moreover, movement attracts immediate attention. And there are no obvious hiding places sixty feet up in the air.
I was spotted. The four people below started to howl, jump, wave, scream and generally make as much commotion as it is possible for four people to make without the aid of instruments.
I veered to my right, climbed at speed, soared above the woodland and over the brow of the subsequent hill, only to discover that I was much nearer than expected to the source of the atmospheric glow I had noticed earlier.
24. Landing awkwardly
I WAS approaching a conurbation of several thousand buildings. Bright lights shone here and there and I could sense the pulse of activity, the thrum of machinery, the surge of effluent. It was essential that I cease flying, before others on the ground saw me and gave chase.
Among the nearest cluster of cells was a large pen, containing several trees and an unlit edifice, one end of which was a square, stone tower. Landing on top of this monument would allow me to survey the enclosure below while remaining inconspicuous, my intention being to identify a hiding-place among the rhododendrons or under the branches of an evergreen.
I started my descent, mindful of the volutation often in force around turrets, anxious to avoid being buffeted against the parapet or the long, white pole attached to the leeward wall, which was the side I had chosen for my landing.
At the very moment that my feet touched the stonework, however, the whole building shook violently, as, in the hollow of the tower, a mighty hammer smote a mighty bell. I slipped backwards off the ledge and fell awkwardly, needles searing back and shoulder as one of my wings collided with the pole.
Again and again the bell struck. Downwards I spiralled, flinching with spasms of pain. Only rapid and strenuous flailing with the undamaged wing prevented me from hitting the ground head first.
Blows to arms and knees would mean bruises and further discomfort, but, as far as I could ascertain, my crash-landing had not been seen or heard by anyone in the vicinity. The wing was buckled, twisted, probably fractured.
Nevertheless, I allowed myself a moment of twofold congratulation. On the one hand, the absence of on-lookers had saved me any embarrassment; on the other, I would be able to report to Arthur, were I to see him again, that I had been able, even while hurtling down to earth, to read the two pointers on the church-tower, and thus establish the time of my fall as being precisely ten o’clock.
25. A meeting in the shadows
SOFT light breaks through yonder window. Or so I think. Have I slept? What are these rows of dark shapes, this plantation of stones?
I inhale slowly, pushing against the pain. The air tastes of age, of short grass and the still, flat mist of death. But I cannot have died – my injuries are too extravert, too sharp.
In a bent crawl, I drag my crumpled crisis towards the base of the tower and slouch, back against the wall. Unexpectedly, a voice squints round the corner.
“You really can fly, can chew? You are cool.”
A lean young man leans against the buttress, hair shading the brow, narrow in the neck, restless of limb.
“I am not cool. I am warm.”
“Nar. I don’t mean cool, I mean… cool. Like when you do sum hut… er… that your mates think is… fun, or ridge null. Like flying. Everyone wants to be able to, but nobody can. Sep chew. And that’s why you’re cool.”
He produces a torchlight, winking its beam at grass verges and standing stones. I roll on to my side, kneel and push against the wall with my left arm, levering myself upright, trying to ignore the claws biting muscle and rib.
“I am Virgulle of Rheta,” I pant. “And I am not good.”
“What? Not good at English?” He grunts a laugh, switches off the light. “Me knee the. Crap at it. Can’t write, can’t spell, don’t giver toss. Only thing I liked in English was that play, that row me own jewel yet.”
His talk is a river passing through a canyon, throwing itself over rocks. But most of what he says I can understand. The plaintive tone to his voice is candid, alluring.
“Used to come here every day. Make dens, tell go stories. That sort a thing. Won’t be the same when R M’s here.”
He pauses, stepping out of the shadows, rummaging in a jacket pocket.
“Want a pizza chocolate?”
He can be no more than sixteen summers. His eyes are dipped, distant; the thin cheeks blotched with maculae; the chin hairless; the chocolate succulent.
“Who is your name?”
I have found what I had thought missing.
26. A conversation with Tom, menacingly interrupted
“YAIR. Right. So… like… does it hurt?”
I raise my shift, to allow him to examine the damaged wing, but Tom needs only to witness the spread of feathers to exclaim:
“Wow! You’re like some kind dove E-gull. Is it broken?”
“Yes. I can not fly.”
“That’s why they call you Sister of Icker Russ. Did you know urine the papers? Papa Ratsy got chew first. They all ways do.”
They? I am confused. Arthur has warned me about the giant Tom mentions, but is he saying there is more than one? Or does Papa Ratsy have two heads? Before I can frame a question, he continues:
“Red all about you. Got a paper round, see. Bar studs, the lot of them. Made life hell for R M, they did.”
“M Illy. My sister.” He swallows on nothing, turning away. “She’s eight. Don’t want to talk about it. She’s with Mam.”
“Mum. Mother. You know what a mother is, don’t you?”
An anger within him has been loosened. He looks at me with a hostility I must respect, even if I cannot comprehend its cause.
“Please, Tom, I am sorry. I know small things and need ask many.”
“Nar. Forget it. Snot your folt.”
And his indignation dissolves into an oblique smile of forgiveness, dismissing the momentary awkwardness between us; as children do.
There is a distant quivering in the air, a remembered tremor from the first hour of the first day. A drone is approaching.
Have B-squiggle-B’s visitors alerted other henchmen to my disappearance? Did the shouters report my whereabouts? Is the winged menace searching the night sky for me?
“I hear a thing I want not.”
“Chopper. There. See?”
Tom peers at the stars, pointing to where moving lights blink against the blackness.
“Hay, are the Pleece after you as well?”
“I think yes.”
He tugs at tufts of hair on the back of his neck, avoiding looking in my direction, then bending to pick up a small pebble, which he hurls at a nearby row of upright stones. It misses.
The drone’s rattle grows louder and louder as it flies towards us.
27. Seek and hide
TOPS of trees in the valley shake to the pulse of the drone’s truculent wings. A fierce beam of light bursts from its belly, like a pillar of white smoke, turning to the colour of ash everything caught in its glare.
“Come on!” shouts Tom.
And we are running over the grass, away from the building, between slabs of stone, under thick branches and down the slope to an overgrown corner of the pen, where we burrow through a narrow breach in the mesh of bough and creeper that hides a quarried shelter, dark and private, a place of secrets from the forgotten days of childhood.
The ache in my shoulder screams as I squeeze into the bower, groping forward until my hand finds Tom’s ankle. He instructs me to keep still and wait for the drone’s searchlight to pass over us, but suddenly he himself moves, wriggling his leg, causing me to loosen the grip on his ankle and, no longer able to remain balanced on my arm, to fall on to my side with a grunt of discomfort.
“I said not to move!” he hisses.
“I not moved. You moved!”
“I had to. You were tickling.”
“What is tickling, please?”
“Keep still!” he orders, as the drone-torch jumps over the wall of the pen, illuminating the stone sentinels to our right. “Oh no, there’s a gap! Up there! A bleed in great hole. They’ll see us!”
The bright white light rushes down the slope towards us.
I look up to where Tom is pointing, can see the black sky beyond. He is right. If the beam shines upon the open ceiling of our shelter, we will be visible to the seekers above. There is no time to gather foliage with which to mask the gaping window, unless––
The light strikes us with the intensity of a whip. Tom huddles below me in a knot, his chest juddering in a rhythm matching that of the drone’s clatter; my back burns under the strain; branches creak; the ground trembles. I close my eyes.
Then, suddenly, it is past. Heat, light and noise are gone, moving away to worry another target.
I sigh, finally able to rest my weary, leaf-like feathers.
28. A homely homestead
Tom sat up. Even in the dark, his eyes gleamed with intense passion.
“That was so cool! You doing that thing… like… turning yourself into a tree. Yay! Sorry I got the giggles. What did you say your name was?”
Thus, in that insignificant grotto in an unkempt corner of an unlikely graveyard on a dark, meandering night, an unexpected friendship between two uncertain wayfarers was tacked together and poked into place among the pine needles and broken stones of the dead and decaying.
With offers of more chocolate (hot), a bed (settee) for the night, and a chance to meet Our Mam (who was in need of ‘some mut to make her laugh’), Tom led me out of the hollow, away from the hallowed ground, across a narrow road, through an old wooden gate and down a muddy path to the house where he, his mother and sister had made small comforts from scant resources… and what sense they could of a troubled, angry and fearful world.
Here it was that I found a reassuring tranquillity – as well as laughter, disagreement, chaos and courage. In this place of safety and solitude, I was able to heal my wounds and deepen my understanding of this world. With Tom’s assistance, I took exercise, read the daily newspaper and grasped the basic principles of sending a txt msg. And, in this skimble-skamble homestead, I was offered, instinctively and unconditionally, benevolence, affection, trust. And bowl after bowl of Weetabix.
We entered through an unlocked door…
(“Nothing worth nicking,” Tom later explained.)
…into a small kitchen, where he was preparing a drink of heated milk and powdered chocolate, when sounds from beyond an inner door caused him to hurry from the room, speaking too quickly for me to understand.
Moments later his mother was standing in the doorway.
I rose to greet a slender, fair-haired woman, whose puffed eyes suggested recent tears – though not, I surmised, as a result of inserting the metal pin in the side of her nose.
“Oh… um… hello. I’m Jenny.”
29. Jenny comes to a decision
“MAKE your mother a pot of T, Tom. It’s been one of those days. Hi.”
Jenny extended her hand, which I clasped in the expected manner. Her grip was strong. Tom noted my wince of discomfort.
“Be care full, Mam. She might have broken sum mut.”
“I’m sorry. And eggs ackli who are you?”
“Virgulle. I am thanking for Tom. He is good.”
“A pain in the back side, you mean.”
“Yes, I hurted the back and the side,” I explained.
There was a pause, before the mother smiled and the son beamed. She gestured for me to be seated once more, while he began filling the kettle.
“Please. Finish your drink. So, what’s this all about?”
And thus Tom was granted the time to recount the circumstances of our encounter in the churchyard, to describe the nature of my injuries. and to explain why he had subsequently invited me into their home. Jenny listened, nodded, interrogated him, made a drug-stick from strands of brown fibre and a wafer of paper, shook her head, frowned, sighed and sipped hot tea.
The door to the hallway being ajar, we were soon joined by the family feline: a wide-haunched, black prowler of many summers, who quickly decided I was neither fowl nor foe, jumping on to my lap and demanding attention.
“See, Mam! Clawed wants her to stay.”
Jenny refilled her mug before addressing me directly, speaking slowly to aid my comprehension:
“This is madness. Emily is ill. Tom is in all kinds of trouble. My X is off his head all the time and no help what so ever. I’ve had to give up my job. We are living from hand to mouth… and… and now you comer long and my son wants us to look after you. I am sorry, but I—”
She inhaled smoke from the drug-stick.
“Oh. Sod it. I guess you’re as lost and needy as I am. I’ve no idea what to suggest and all I can do is give you some old clothes and the odd crust of bread. I am a lone parent with a sick child and problems up to here…”
She put a hand up to her chin.
“…but, if you want to stay for a few days, you can. We’ll cope. Somehow.”
30. Tom’s enterprise and Jenny’s character
FIVE weeks later, I was still living in the house of the unruly Tom, the frail Emily and their determined mother. And Jenny was right: we did cope, somehow.
When Emily came home, I took to sleeping on the settee, but she and I so enjoyed each other’s company that I began spending more and more time in her room, often dozing in the chair by her bed should she waken during the night.
Tom left the house several times a day. Sometimes he would return with items of tinned food, which, he said, had been given to him by ‘the oldies on the estate’. For some reason, Jenny was discomforted by these neighbourly gifts, which she would place out of sight in a cupboard, as one might hide a temptation.
Meanwhile, in a suitcase on top of the wardrobe in his bedroom, Tom kept his own collections of both food and a thing call Money. I had to promise not to tell Jenny about these troves, or, he said, he would inform the giant Pleece of my whereabouts.
“Life? I tend to make it up as I go along,” Jenny told me. “Had plans once, but now I take each day as it comes. Emily’s all that matters. And Tom… but he’ll be off in a few years time. If Em doesn’t survive this, I’ll probably kill myself.”
She was both hard and soft, weak and strong, defeated but defiant, rebuilding herself time and again, as in the Rhetan fable of The Oucock and the Druth Monster, where the simple-minded hen constructs nest after nest with a single-mindedness of purpose that the brutish demon initially mocks, but, ultimately, cannot crush.
So did Jenny labour, shoring up cracks in the rickety structure of her family and their home. Even when worn out with the weight of the day’s exertions, she would not sleep – could not sleep, she told me – thinking about the uncertainty of the morrow, the hollowness of hope.
“There are times, Virgulle, when my heart continues to beat only because it does not know how not to.”
The good do not always know they are good, as we are often told.
31. The Vestral continued
FROM the paper shop, Tom bought and brought me a plastic-wrapped pack of five notebooks and I was able to continue the record of the Vestral. The first pages of those diaries include the following reflections and instances:
Day 3. I can again hold a writing implement. Jenny made bamboo splints for my wing and has rubbed into my cuts an ointment made from the wax of bees, which was one of the many good things, she says, that can be found at the Double U Eye Mark It.
I also have several items of clothing she found in cases, cupboards and black plastic bags. She did not hesitate to tell me that I look terrible in most of them. According to her:
“There’s faith, hope, and charity… but the greatest of these is charity shops.”
Tom has given me a new name: Ulla. I accept this, though still do not understand Jenny’s explanation:
“If anyone asks, you are a Ref U G. I’ll tell them Rick and I stayed with your family when we were hitching across you’re up years ago.”
Day 4, morning, Tom’s window. I see many cells of the same shape, stone roads, lines of cages; women pushing infants in seats on wheels; two males attaching tiles to a sloping roof. There are tall poles in the road, from which wires stretch to every cell. Tom says they carry power. I recall what Arthur said about the giants having power – the power to do ill. Perhaps these ugly wires help the giants control the serfs.
A straight line of cloud across the sky! Is it a bird or machine? Can the giants manufacture weather? Tom says they are making the planet warmer. Why?
Jenny says Emily will come home soon. Her bedroom is both library and study. Story books with illustrations quicken my learning.
Day 5. I prepare breakfast: three bowls of Weetabix. When Tom enters, I inform him that one is too hot, one is too sweet and one is just right. He grins and says that is my first joke. Jenny points to an item of broken furniture.
“Who’s been sitting on my chair?”
It pleases us both to hear her laughter.
32. Versions of the past presented
“MORE by luck than judgment then,” Jenny concluded, when we discussed how I’d avoided being caught by the giants.
Tom had returned from a walk, presenting me with thirty or more newspapers.
“Here we go. Flying Saucier! Close Encounters Of The Bird Kind! Sister Of Icarus, question mark. There you are, Ulla. Everything from the last few days. Been round the oldies. Said I’d recycle them for them. That your spaceship? Cool.”
With the assistance of Jenny and Tom, I was able to ascertain what had happened since my arrival: my lifeboat had been seen in the sky by a machine called Radar; helicopters belonging to R Me had been scrambled (Jenny did not think they would go well with toast) and flown to the coast to search for the capsule.
Guvver Munt, whom I was beginning to regard as the giant’s leader, later claimed that a part of a satellite had, for reasons as yet unknown, dropped out of orbit; the salvaged section was being examined by scientists; people had initially been advised to keep away from the area as a precaution against possible radiation; experts now confirmed there was no such danger and the stretch of coastline was once again open to the public.
Reports of an astronaut, allegedly seen in the water shortly after the splash-down, were, according to Guvver Munt, ‘unhelpful’.
One newspaper insisted it had The Real Inside Story. There were many photographs of me, of my wings, and a blurred shape said to be my space shuttle. Martin gave an account of how he bravely ‘rescued the extra-terrestrial from the sea’. Kirsty’s ‘exclusive interview’ included many false statements, though I would not argue with her conclusion that I was, without doubt, from another world.
A claim was made that Guvver Munt was now keeping me in a secret location, while I became ‘acclimatised’. The public had a ‘right to know’ if this was so.
Each tale was different, each inaccurate. I believe newspapers are more eager to make money than present the truth.
33. A walk in the dark and the thing called Money
CRAB, Lion, Maiden, Scales. Although I found some comfort in the names given to groups of stars, a yearning to behold the moons Rheta often left me feeling sorrowful.
I determined, therefore, to learn the patterns of the night sky and asked Jenny if it would be safe for me to venture outside after darkness fell.
“As long as Tom goes with you. A sin gull woman has to be honour guard.”
I wore a large coat over dungarees and a pair of Jenny’s boots. Cloud hid the stars, but I hid my disappointment and bade Tom lead me to a nearby meadow where I could walk on something other than concrete.
“The wreck then.”
We entered a wide pen, which clearly earned its name from the activities undertaken by local residents, for here people would go to break glass bottles and throw food wrappers. Most of the grass had been churned into mud. We did not stay long.
Park Avenue was a long row of identical cells, three of which had signs in front of them. Tom explained that the occupants wished to live elsewhere and the buildings would eventually be purchased by others.
“Are people giving Money to people for the houses?”
“Yep, but they cost a four tune.”
I could not understand the thing called Money. Jenny had explained that everything – food, plates, clothes, soap, newspapers – had a ‘price’, a value on the Money scale. The shop gave Money to Tom for his delivering the newspapers. Jenny also received Money called Benefit from Guvver Munt, but Benefit Money did not buy many things.
Different amounts of Money were given to people in return for work: a doctor more than a nurse, a builder more than a cook, an engineer more than a cleaner. Just as things were placed at differing points on the Money scale, so were people. I considered this very strange, for how could one person be more valuable than another?
Tom and I returned to find Jenny making everything ready for a special moment.
The following day Emily came back from hospital, with her crab.
34. Emily of the shaven head
“WHAT is death?” asks Timer Halmot, the clock-keeper in the fable of The Hamper Eel and the Water Clock.
“Oh, nothing,” replies the slippery eel, sliding, slithering and wriggling ever closer to the mouth of the clepsydra.
“What do you think happens after we die?” asks Emily, the convalescent child in the Walker household in Churchfield Road.
“Nothing,” I tell her. “We end. We will have not breath, have not thought. To die is to be alive finished.”
“Olivia says I will go to Heaven if I die.”
“Where is Heaven, please?”
“Up in the sky. Where God lives, Olivia says. Did you go past Heaven in your spaceship?”
“I don’t really think there’s a place called Heaven,” she whispers. “I think Olivia was pretending. Let’s play something.”
She slithers down the pillow, wriggling under the bedclothes, sliding closer to sleep, to the end of another day in the journey of her recovery.
Olivia is Emily’s best friend. Often she visits the house with her mother, Linda, and younger brother, Sam, who is shy and clings always to Linda’s thigh.
Bravery can be slavery, as we are often told, but Emily’s little life had not yet taught her how to disguise distress. She feared the sting of injection; the rack of fever; the lurch of vomit. And dying more than death itself. Yet she wished, as long as she was alive, simply to carry on playing, giving, loving and just being herself.
Sometimes I would look at those freckled cheeks, the lagoon eyes or the curl of her fingers and see all the wisdom there ever was wrapped up inside that small, striving body.
Children are why we exist.
She taught me many different games, the names and dietary requirements of her seventeen cuddlies and the numbers up to infinity. I rearranged pillows, washed towels, told stories, drew pictures and even persuaded Clawed that Emily would be better served if her sleep was not disturbed by his frequent need to paw her shaven head. I endured several bites and scratches before winning the argument.
35. Jenny and Tom discuss schooling; his subsequent brave decision
TOM’S reasoning went as follows:
“It’s boar ring. It’s all bells and rules and yes miss know miss. If their sew whys and have all the answers, the kids should be asking all the questions. Instead, it’s the other way round. Nobody wants to beings cool, not even the teachers.”
Jenny freely conceded she had said much the same thing, twenty years previously.
“But at least I stuck at it. Even passed some exams. And it’s much easier getting a job with a few serf tickets in your pocket.”
The daily debate was initiated by Jenny, over breakfast, when she would goad Tom with threats, tempt him with promises, or tease him with comments about the girls at the school, all of whom, she alleged, were waiting eagerly for him to return, to charm them with his humour and good looks.
“I thought you wanted me to go to learn stuff, not to just chat up girls in the plague round.”
A few days later, however – and much to his mother’s surprise – he came down for breakfast wearing what is called the school you-knee-form.
“Oh my god, look what the cat dragged in!” exclaimed Jenny, which made me wonder if Clawed had had some part to play in Tom’s transformation.
“Am going to march straight into What-kin-sun’s office and tell him I’ve come to give myself up,” Tom declared. “If I don’t come out alive, Ulla, you can have my mobile… and tell Mitch he can have my skateboard.”
Three Weetabix later, he tied round his neck the dark tether that was a part of the ritual attire.
I surmised not only that this was a symbolic act of submission, an acceptance of his serfdom, but also that he had taken this decision in order to assuage Jenny and relieve her of the concern of coping with a contumacious son as well as a stricken daughter. I was again reminded of the relationship between slavery and bravery.
With a hug for his mother and a shrug in my direction, Tom left the house, grim and gloomy of countenance, as if walking out into a blizzard.
36. More time at The Wreck
“WRAP up warm, young lady, and promise me you will not swim in any deep puddles.”
Doctor Pandi was a jovial man with dark brown skin and a neat moustache. Like a fond uncle, he hurried up the stairs two at a time, calling Emily’s name.
I would have discussed with him the nature of white blood disease and the methods used in the treatment thereof, but once he had completed his evaluation of Emily’s health, he left as swiftly as he had arrived, politely declining Jenny’s offer of a cup of tea with an apology that he could not spare the time, there being ‘no peace for the wicked’.
Jenny thought I should ask Pandi to examine my broken wing, but it seemed to be healing satisfactorily and I thought it inappropriate to delay the good doctor when he had more pressing duties to perform.
Emily now being well enough to go out, the three of us often walked to The Wreck, where she could swing, climb and slide, while Jenny conversed with other mothers.
Several infants were fitted with mouth-stoppers, presumably to discourage them from talking and thus ensure training from an early age in the practice of remaining silent rather than making demands or asking awkward questions.
“I can’t stand any of them,” Emily explained.
Consequently, whenever one fell over, which was often, I would set the child back on its feet myself.
The women rarely spoke to me. If anyone recognised me from the newspaper pictures, nobody said so. My anonymity was doubtless aided by my appearance, Jenny insisting that, whenever we went out, I hid my hair under a headscarf and wore clothes she described as ‘beautifully drab’.
After Pandi’s next visit, during which I was asked to hold Emily’s hand while he drew blood from her arm into a tube, Jenny announced that it was time for an expedition.
Tom would take the following day off school and we would catch the bus into town, borrow some books from the library, buy a new winter coat for Emily and have lunch at a place called Pete’s Hut.
37. An expedition starts with a stop
DICE games: Emily’s favourite involved counters, ladders and serpents; Tom preferred covering a map of the planet with red tokens, representing armies; Jenny considered teaching me a game with hotels, free parking and a water works, but decided an evening spent painting the cupboard-under-the-stairs would be more productive.
Our expedition to the town, it transpired, was also a game, in which counters move slowly round a board, spending allotted finances, acquiring certain objects, meeting with sadness or pleasure at stations along the way, and returning to the home square in time for tea.
We halted at a post called Bus Stop. Here, it seemed, we would have to throw a six to continue.
“It’s late,” Jenny admitted, after five minutes of waiting.
“It’s always late,” said Tom.
“Why?” I asked.
“It just is,” grinned Emily.
“But, if the bus always is late, why are we now coming to the Bus Stop?”
“Because it would then be early,” Jenny explained, “and we’d miss it. It’s something called Sod’s Law.”
Another giant, no doubt.
Many cages passed, often with only one occupant, leading me to ask my companions why none of the drivers stopped to invite us to share their transport. Jenny informed me that she had insufficient Money to buy or hire a cage… the poor, the young and the old had to rely upon unreliable public transport… yes, most of the cages were also heading towards the centre of the town, but, no, the drivers would not offer to take us there.
“Is it the law?”
“Not quite. It’s not against the law, but it’s not, er… customary.”
So, the drivers would not take anyone who was not a customer. Apparently, people with cages had no wish to help those without cages. Strange.
I had assumed the bus would be like those in picture books: two storeys high and bright red. But this was white, with stripes, and no second tier: a disappointment, for I had been looking forward to sitting on the upper level.
As it approached, Jenny and Tom began to argue.
38. Travelling by bus into the town
“HALF, Mam. Right?”
“I’m not asking for a half for you. You’re fifteen.”
“I always go half. Just blag it.”
“No way. I’d be too embarrassed.”
“I’ll get it then. I don’t know you, right. Getting off at boots… yair?”
Tom moved away from us, holding out his arm to ensure that the bus stopped at the Bus Stop.
“I suppose so,” Jenny shrugged.
The bus came to a halt, Its front door opened to admit us. Tom mounted the three steps and addressed the driver.
“Half return, please.”
“How old are you?”
The driver is a large man with a reddish face.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“Huh. Ninety pea.”
Tom handed him a coin. Apparently the poor, who cannot afford cages, must nevertheless pay to journey by bus.
Tom took a piece of printed paper from the driver’s machine and chose a vacant seat. Jenny purchased three more of these serf tickets . Emily wanted us to sit on the long rear seat. As we passed Tom, she poked her tongue out at him, much as she did for Doctor Pandi. I wondered if she was feeling unwell, but she was giggling.
“Why isn’t that boy at school, Mummy?”
“Perhaps he’s a true ant,” Jenny replied, quite loudly. “Let’s just ignore him, shall we?”
The journey to town took about fifteen minutes. A number of other poor people were admitted on to the bus, but nobody greeted us or spoke to anyone other than the driver. Emily removed her woollen hat and tugged my sleeve.
“Will people mind, Ulla? Do you think?”
“Me not having any hair. Will they think I’m ugly? Will they stare at me?”
“If they do,” advised Jenny, “just stare back. And stick your tongue out at them.”
“I will. Look, Ulla! That’s where Mummy used to work. It’s a super market. A big shop where you can buy Weetabix and fruit juice and toilet rolls and lots of things… well, everything actually.”
Ting! An orange sign lit up, informing us that the bus was stopping, which made me laugh, as it seemed to be stopping more often than it was proceeding.
39. The wheels on the bus go round and round
“POOR people. Is it wrong for them to sing in the bus?”
“Not wrong, but not customary,” Jenny smiled.
“When I have Money, I give it to the man who is driving. And I will sing. Yes?”
“Ulla, if you want to sing, sing!”
“Ye-es!” Emily agreed, excitedly. “And you must sing The Wheels on the Bus.”
“What is the song, please?”
“It’s easy-peasy. I’ll start and you join in.”
And so the singing began, quietly at first, with Emily whispering the opening lines about the wheels going round and round all day long, which we repeated together, before singing about the people on the bus going chatter-chatter-chatter and the engine going vroom-vroom-vroom and somebody called a conductor asking for ‘any more fares’ and children laughing, sheep going baa, dogs barking, owls hooting, lions roaring… by which time Jenny had joined in, the volume had increased significantly, other passengers were looking at us and two older women started singing too.
Emily stood, gripping the rail of the seat in front of her. An elderly gentleman started a verse about an old man on the bus saying it’s good to be alive, which others took up with louder voices, while Tom stared out of the window, more determined than ever to show that he was not a travelling companion of ours.
The bus reached the centre of the town and most passengers prepared to disembark outside a large shop which would appear to sell footwear, but didn’t.
“Was that cat-a-walling your doing?” the driver asked Jenny as we prepared to alight.
“Yes. Me and my daughter and our friend.”
“Well, don’t do it again. Not on my bus anyway. That sort of nonsense can cause accidents. And it’s against the rules.”
For once Jenny had nothing to say. Tom, just behind me, muttered something about a bar stud. Emily looked at the driver with fierce eyes. He made the mistake of staring back at her, to which she responded by sticking out her tongue.
The poorer you are, the more rules there are, I have since discovered.
40. A short discourse on shopping
THAT of shopping is, of all human activities I have observed, one of the most amusing.
It combines the labours of the ant colony with the hunger of the hyena and the ritual displays of mating fowl.
I cannot but admire the giants’ understanding of their serfs in ensuring the continuing attraction of shopping by the incorporation into the process of three essential features: dissatisfaction, desire and difficulty.
That the serfs are generally unhappy is obvious: why else would they buy 5,000,000,000 lottery tickets a year, when the chances of winning are so infinitesimal?
Avarice is not merely condoned, but encouraged. Most serfs, unable to acquire vast riches, toil hard in order to obtain at least some rewards: a cell with a pen, a cage, appliances for cooking, entertainment and comfort. Having all these possessions, however, does not satisfy an innate appetite for more: a second cell, a faster cage, a larger television, and so on.
Authoritative voices demand to know who wants to be a millionaire. The answer is, they all do.
Thus, to compensate for the dissatisfaction of tedious work and to meet the desire for ownership of goods, the giants have granted the serfs the privilege of shopping. However, they have also contrived to make this task both arduous and complicated.
Most shops are only open during the hours when most serfs are at work. Consequently, most people go shopping on the one day when everyone else is intent on doing the same. Highways, cage bays and pedestrian zones become so crowded that it can take a serf several hours to reach the shop s·he wishes to visit, only to have to join a long line of others waiting to make purchases.
Notwithstanding these frustrations, the serfs continue to embrace shopping with formidable zeal and unblinking devotion.
Perhaps, one day, each and every serf will have purchased each and every item required for complete happiness, whereupon the observance of these rituals will decline. Perhaps.
41. The innocence of Emily
WORN out by the shopping, Emily wished not to sing on the return bus journey, but rested against my shoulder while I recounted the Rhetan fable of The Able Rich Man and the Page’s Coat, in which a young valet thwarts a scheming steward and proves his innocence with the aid of a chameleon cloak.
“Tom should get one of those,” concluded Emily. “Then he could hide from the teachers who are after him.”
I was the one, however, whose hiding-place was soon to be discovered and it was Emily, alas, whose actions led to my exposure.
Initially, Jenny had informed Emily only that I was a friend from abroad. But the hidden often emerges unbidden, as we are often told, and, on an occasion when I had neglected to secure the door by sliding the bolt, Emily had entered the bathroom, seeing my upper body naked.
I was relieved not to have to conceal the truth from the child any longer, though Jenny did explain to Emily that my wings and origins were to be kept secret, which Emily duly promised to do.
One morning, however, she burst into tears and confessed she had failed to keep her word.
“When Olivia came to play, yesterday,” she sobbed, “I told her about the page boy and his coat… and… and I said it was a story everyone knew on your planet… and she… she laughed and said you weren’t from a different planet… and I said you were… and she said I was telling fibs…”
Jenny looked at me anxiously, but I told them both it was not important and that I would happily show Olivia my wings on her next visit. Emily sat up, pushed back the bed covers, and leant forward to give me a tight embrace and warm-wet kiss.
Whereupon, the door alarm sounded and I hurried down the stairs, Emily’s physician being expected. On this occasion, however, he was not alone.
“Hello, Doctor Pandi. Please do––”
“Are you the woman known as Ulla or Virgulle?”
I was being addressed by a tall, dark-haired serf with severe eyes.
“D Tech Tivvin Spectre Stokes. You are under a rest.”
42. The author leaves the Walker household
“ULLA, I am sorry. They came to my surge—”
“Thank you, Doctor,” interrupts Stokes. “You may go and see your patient.”
“Bad news. Today I bring only bad news.”
Pandi touches my arm before hurrying up the stairs, but without his customary greeting call for Emily.
Behind Stokes stand two figures all in black: a blonde female with a coaxing smile and a stern male, his thumbs resting on a broad belt of many devices.
“You will come with us. You’ll need a coat and any papers you have.”
“I am asking Jenny. She wills me to not leave the hou—”
“Our people will talk to Missis Walker. Get your things. Now.”
All three follow me into the front room, watching as I gather together my notebooks. Are they from the giants? Should I call to Jenny for help? No. Pandi will explain and I do not wish to interrupt while he is seeing Emily.
“Shoes,” demands Stokes. “Do you have shoes?”
I think of Arthur and the word ‘kids’. Suddenly I feel very alone and very scared. I wish to rid our home of these intruders, but do not have the words and think they will only sneer or respond with harsh violence. When in doubt, say nowt, as Tom has often advised me.
“We’ll take those,” he announces, motioning to his female associate to carry my belongings. “Right. Let’s go.”
And thus we leave, entering a black cage parked on the road outside the house. I am ordered to sit on the rear seat, between two henchmen.
Slowly, the cage begins to proceed and I turn to look back, wondering if I will ever again return home in time for afternoon tea, for toast thickly spread with butter and jam; to watch Jenny rolling a drug-stick; to listen to Tom’s tales of his day in school; to laugh with Emily about my promise to take her flying once she is restored to full health.
Stokes turns to glower at me.
“Eyes front. No talking and no sudden movements. Understand?”
This was, I assumed, an expression of his opinion of the situation. It was not an opinion I shared.
END OF PART ONE