Editorial: Greetings, Panners. Consider this entry the first of two 'Pan Review Of The Arts' for this year. Based in Japan, SEAN MICHAEL WILSON is a comic book writer from Scotland. He has had more than forty books published by a variety of UK, US and Japanese publishers. Here, we briefly discuss his latest release; George Orwell's personal school years revelation on the issue of Class; a classic essay turned into graphic novel form with illustrator JAIME HUXTABLE. Following this, a rare treat; a complete original short tale of space/time portal-jumping by Greece-based author MARIA PETROU. Pan is chuffed with the honour of its debut here. Finally, an extended 'Albertine's Wooers' wraps up this Summer's new releases.
Sean Michael Wilson
On Turning George Orwell's 'Such, Such Were The Joys' into a Graphic Novel
What attracted you to turning this particular essay into graphic form?
In one way we can say its easy: I really like George Orwell's essays and opinion pieces and this one is suitable for visualisation because there is a lot of visual description.
To look at that deeper we might ask: why do you want to make a visual version of something you like? Can't you just like it? Talk about it with a friend? Do a blog post? Why go to all the effort of making a graphic novel out of it, when you know that it's going to take months? That brings out various presumptions and assertions. At root the thing is a desire to be connected, in some active creative way, to a figure or idea or work of art you feel drawn too. You want to do something of your own in connection: a song, a documentary, a book. There is something pleasurable and meaningful about that. It's a kick for me to be connected to Orwell, especially as our book has permission from the Orwell estate and a back cover quote from Orwell's son. (Richard).
But we can also ask: what does your song/movie/graphic novel add here? To be worth doing and buying it should add something. In this case the obvious answer is that it adds visuals. Or we might say revives the visuals, because Orwell added quite a lot of illustrations in his letters home from school to his parents. So, we are bringing his autobiographical story out in a visual form, for the first time (as far as I know). And that means the graphic novel becomes a thing in itself, not just a photocopy or 'straight' translation. We have visualised it in ways that perhaps Orwell himself didn't quite think of, with visual details that are not mentioned in his text (and could therefore be wrong in places!). We have also adjusted some of the text in order to connect the panels and make them flow well. Also, we have added in new text here and there, to bring conversations that Orwell only hints at to a more full realization.
As to the content: this story has a lot in it. It's talking about the troubles of childhood, in a way that most can still relate to. It's talking about the injustice and capriousness of adult authority. It's talking about class and economic injustice. And its also very personal and intimate.
What, or who, informed your own politics and how would you define it?
I was trying to think about this the other day, about how I first start getting interested in politics and what made me left-wing, and I couldn’t remember how it started. But it started very early when I was 16 or 17. I made a magazine in school when I was 17 and I still have it as proof of my early inclinations. There’s two pages on it strongly criticising Margaret Thatcher. So I was already left- wing when I was 17. And I supported Nicaragua around that time as well. It was the first campaign I was aware of, while still at school. But I don’t remember what made me so because none of my family were left-wing or are even now. So, its a bit of mystery.
Then when I studied sociology and politics in university I learned more about the theoretical aspects and the movements. I also became more interested in the connection between Politics and Humanities, which is what I do with my comic books now. I took a course in the Sociology of Literature, which inspired me. It was taught by a sociologist who was also a poet: Tim Cloudsley. And my other sociology teacher, Mike Scott, was also a painter. So, pretty cool role models and they helped me see how Politics is actually about pretty much everything. It’s not just about party political things. It’s about how we organise our lives and societies.
I will say that I’m most drawn to Anarchist or Libertarian Socialist ways of organising ourselves. It seems to me the most natural and beneficial way we can do it. I’m still learning all the time, about the history of the different left-wing movements and doing approaches, and the successes and failures of past movements. I’m reading and thinking about it, after. And in doing my own left- focused books with people like Michael Albert and Noam Chomsky, with the GFTU and the present one on Ocalan and Kurdistan, I learn a lot in the process. It seems to me that my attitude and the kind of combination of political and literary interests is rather similar to Orwell‘s and that’s partly why I am drawn to him.
One of the reasons I’m left-wing is because the arguments from the Right are almost always silly cliched rubbish. If they had better arguments I could perhaps see you their point of view more, but they don’t. The great question is why so many people who are not actually elite capitalists themselves support right-wing views. There are some reasons but most end up in shooting yourself in the foot.
I think the graphic novel is one key route to attracting a younger generation to Socialism who may, otherwise, feel alienated by what can be perceived as the dryness of the subject and politics more generally. How do you feel about this take?
As you know a key problem for the Left is that it’s divided amongst itself and it seems complicated to learn the various theories and examples going back around two-hundred years. The other thing is that while gender and race activism feel like physical things close to people's identity, the issues of the economic system and class now feel abstract and only loosely connected to people's personal experience. (Even if that is quite wrong).
So, yes, comic books can help to overcome that in two ways: firstly, they have an image of being easy and enjoyable to read. That may be a cliche but it has a positive effect in terms of not putting people off, which is a big advantage. Because in my experience quite a lot of people build up a psychological block to reading things they see as 'heavy'. The second thing is that having visuals gives a certain concrete element to the abstract ideas that helps us process them. Readers can see things like the miners strike or people being forbidden to have toilet breaks, et cetera. That is not a dumbing down of the materials; its playing to the way the human brain works and takes in info, and how we recall it too. Though, one disadvantage is that a two-hundred page comic can not go into as much detail as a two-hundred page text-only book can.
My own experiences of people is they respond very well to going into these issues in comic book form, but books in general don’t sell well enough, so the reach is still limited. But, it definitely can help, yes. I'm happy that my own books are part of that.
Many thanks to Sean for his replies.
You can check out his latest here: https://seanmichaelwilson.weebly.com/orwell.html
* * *
Of Space-Time and the Cat
A short story by
The jeep just barely fitted in the narrow alleys. They resembled canyons made of old high buildings seeming to lean towards each other, their roofs almost touching. I was surprised that the car’s body didn’t scrape against the walls. But we had to avoid the main roads; we were going out without the exit permit. We were, virtually, illegal. I kept looking in the rear-view mirror for signs of pursuit. Ι hardly believed I wasn’t seeing red flashes behind us. Anda told me, swerving the steering wheel:
“I’m not sure where exactly we will turn up this way.”
She sighed. “As always. Since boundaries are so mixed up after the Great Disaster...”
“It seems to me like it was yesterday. Like a bad dream. And it seems like it was ages ago. How much time do you think has actually passed?”
“I’m not sure. Last years…”
“Ellie, let me concentrate. We have to get out and cross The Fusion Place to find, by any chance, your home.”
The houses were getting lower and lower, until they didn’t exist anymore; they leveled with the ground, the ground becoming more sterile and harder until, at last, we reached the desert; a desert born by the war, of black sand and frozen obsidian lakes, as if the soil and the minerals had melted from the inconceivable heat of a monstrous volcanic eruption. A mighty weapon had gone off here; because of it, scientists called the desert ‘The Fusion Place.’ It bordered a large part of the uneven perimeter of the New World, which actually included the once central neighbourhoods of a megalopolis with millions of residents, some of its suburbs, and some fairly close settlements. At the rest of the perimeter, as far as the eye could see, were only torn earth and debris. Many search parties were sent this way but, after long fruitless weeks trudging through the same sad landscape, they returned without success, without encountering any trace of habitation or life; and the expeditions stopped. In the press at the time, there was no information about hostilities in the area; the most probable explanation – and most repeated pattern in world’s history – was that our adversaries had thunderstruck us, to make an example, while testing their most improved weapon. Perhaps somewhere else our country existed, kneeled, surrendered, lamenting the annihilated historical megalopolis, not knowing that by a caprice of the universe a part of it still survived in a fold of space-time.
There weren’t landmarks in the desert; you drove straight for twenty, or thirty, or fifty kilometers; there never was the same distance, and you never ended up to the same spot. Compasses weren’t very reliable there. After a long process of trial and error and mulish patience, we had discovered that following a certain direction we would turn up in approximately the same area; but without knowing exactly where and when – because, further on, the Waste Land lay. A portion of the city that, while dilapidated by the Disaster, still stood there, and nobody knew why.
I was in the city centre, the day of the Τransposition, and was shut in. Like millions of people then, I believed that the long war was raging far at the borders, that there were many more strategic targets, that the adversaries would respect our ancient city, full of historic landmarks. In our dreams! When the first fright passed, when we tried to return to our homes after the initial shock, after the eruption, the roar and the turbulence, we discovered that there weren’t roads or houses anymore, just wilderness. We were in the middle of nowhere. What remained of the city was crammed with desperate people, who didn’t know if they still had families or occupation, or where they would sleep. Of course, initially, panic reigned; but when it was confirmed that we were cut-off, that there were no more news, communication, commerce and visitors, that those who were absent that day would never return and just a few hundred thousands of people remained, the city organized to deal with the devastation. There were supplies of food, fuel and energy for almost a decade, if consumption was controlled, since we were so few now, and we would become self-sufficient if we immediately started designing a new infrastructure. If we couldn’t communicate with other cities or nations after some time, we would be convinced we had drifted into chaos and were alone.
The State held firm the reigns. With brief procedures a provisional government was formed, of municipal officials and military officers; police was essential and omnipresent. Someone had to organize chaos, enforce order, combat panic and upheavals. An inventory was needed, to account for how many permanent residents of the centre were missing. The homeless people like me, had to be registered, lodged and fed. The reactions of the dwellers who remained, and at first refused to understand the situation’s severity and live a more frugal life, had to be repressed; provisions and employment to be allocated justly to everybody, according to their skills, whether they were locals or outsiders. Of course, this equality didn’t really exist, and many people were protesting; but the sinister, grey uniforms were lurking in the shadows, like ominous clouds, registering every reaction and remonstrance. Dissidents were relocated for labour to farms and small factories, constructed at the perimeter of the cut-off city-nation, and become productive members of our new society. Thereafter, everybody shut up.
Gradually, the New World was formed as the regime wished; without upheavals, with order. They didn’t care about the lowlifes of the underworld – something that will never change – but about the citizens’ discipline, the acceptance of the police state. Anyway, organized crime died after the blockade and only petty criminals remained; burglars, three-card mongers, small-time pushers, poultry thieves, prostitutes – and a hybridic race was born; half-legal, half-illegal - the scavengers.
In my previous life I was a civil engineer. That day I had a meeting with a client. Fortunately, the good man took me in until I could find out what to do, so I didn’t end up on the streets. After the first upheavals, when life in the city started to find a pace again, I applied for lodgings and started seeking work. I didn’t want to burden my hosts anymore. Ι tried to find something in my field, but the ‘natives’ preferred their acquaintances, and competition among outsiders for any kind of employment was ferocious. At last, they gave me a bedsit with a bed and a table, and I found a job at a gas station; I was working at the pumps, washed windscreens and sometimes did a repair. My salary was pejorative – as is always for the destitute – but I didn’t have many needs; food and booze, warm cloths, some books and, little by little, the house necessities. Even if I could afford it, I didn’t have the heart for entertainment and outings. I was still shell-shocked from the loss of my home and my life and mad from pain for my Night, my precious cat, which was left behind; my little girl, forever lost.
I didn’t have any family to mourn, and friends had drifted away as years went by. I was living alone, with a void inside me; a hole which sometimes I could almost see in the mirror, which work and superficial acquaintances couldn’t fill. Until I met Night. I longed many years for a kitty, but I was afraid of the responsibility. Back then, I made many business trips. Who would care for her when I wasn’t there? I couldn’t even find someone to water my plants; but, a colleague convinced me to take in a poor animal in need of a home. They rescued it from the street and a girl hosted it, but her cats didn’t accept it. When I went to see her, the little girl came and sat on my lap, fearless, as if she already knew me; with apperception with trust. And suddenly I felt a bubble swelling inside me, like a balloon full of helium; swelling, enlarging and filling the black hole; her apperception, her trust. I took her in without a second thought. It was love at first sight – for both of us. She was black silk, molten gold eyes and frolicsome tail, lithe like an ancient Egyptian cat; smart, gracious and cuddly. She was my little black panther, strolling in the ‘jungle’ of my balcony and fiercely attacking the potted palm in my living room. She became my family, my child, the apple of my eye. I didn’t need anything anymore. I was giving and taking inexhaustible, undersigned love. I had never loved anybody so much, and nobody had loved me so much. Her purring was the most beautiful music in the world. She was sleeping on my pillow, waking me up with a kiss. She followed me everywhere. She made me happy. She made me whole. Whatever happened to me, she was always there.
I had been working at the gas station for about two years when I met Anda. I was seeing her frequently as, because of her profession, she needed much more fuel than most citizens. Gradually, we started to talk. Before the Τransposition she was an antiquarian, but antiques weren’t greatly demanded in the New World anymore, so she became a scavenger when ‘soap-bubbles’, as people dubbed the strange time anomalies in the Waste Land, were discovered.
She needed an assistant. My profession counted; as an engineer, I knew how to spot dangerous buildings which could collapse and crush us, and discover safe passages. I could use tools and help if the car stalled. The salary was generous, and I would get a commission if I was up to the job. I wouldn’t have to rise at dawn and work like a dog twelve hours for crumbs anymore. And the greatest allure, which I didn’t divulge until we got to know each other better, was something I had learned from colleagues of hers; that through a twist of luck my old neighbourhood was part of the Waste Land, and time-pockets existed there. Perhaps my home was preserved in one of them; perhaps I could get back in time and search for my baby who could be still living, rambling somewhere, sometime, frightened, famished and alone.
Of course, I accepted.
The job’s pressure helped me to be alert, to forget for a while my depression, and I had real contact with another human being – despite the employer-employee relationship, we had become friends and we depended upon each other for our survival. Αnd it preserved my crazy hope, the only thing still keeping me sane; that perhaps I could find my Night, find within Waste Land’s chaos the right soap-bubble at the right moment; because, after the Τransposition, the world was scattered, and what remained of our city was a raft swirling in the ocean of space-time.
There were some adventurers who set off to explore the Waste Land, and discovered that amongst the ruins were time-pockets which had remained in Before. Nobody knew for sure what was left there from Before the Great Disaster, how and why those pockets were preserved into After, neither where and when they exactly were, and if they existed in our space-time. Our presence seemed to affect them, since they moved imperceptibly after each expedition. ‘Nobody can enter the same river twice’ a sage had said. The great river of time. The specialists who went to study them were coming back increasingly confused and disheartened, and the simple people believed that the wilderness was haunted. Only scavengers dared to visit the stern necropolis of After; nobody knew what dangers, infections or malevolent ghosts could lurk there. Βecause of this, some guards sometimes looked the other way. On the one hand, their admiration for the scavengers’ swagger, who didn’t know if they would come back next time, and, on the other, some coins discreetly palmed.
We were seeking, like the other scavenges, the most promising soap-bubbles, and sometimes we wrenched small or big treasures; information and objects for historians, collectors and artists. From time to time, money was changing hands and a scavenger made a hoard.
Anda was looking forward to this hoard. How long had we been searching the ruins together? Three years? More? We weren’t sure.
Nobody was sure. Time was relative now. Was it the terrible pressure of the anti-matter weapons which, distorting the fabric of the universe itself, warped and misshaped the fourth dimension and tore its weft? Before … how many years exactly? At least five or six. More? How many? Were our memories so distorted? Scientists were still trying to understand exactly how the Τransposition occurred and where it led us. The fragment which is now called New World was catapulted somewhere else. It wasn’t that much of a world; just some hundred square kilometerses, and then the unknown. The city tuned up in a strange dimension of its own – here time really flowed like a river; one time wide and shallow, one time deep, one time fast and turbulent. Sometimes the sunset lasted hours, sometimes night didn’t fall at all for days, and other times snow fell in spring along with the blossoms of the cherry trees. Summers were unpredictable, autumns long and teary. The constellations were different. At times we saw luminous, multicoloured veils like the Νorthern Lights rippling on the sky. One could easily lose count of the seasons. And we were encircled by no man’s land, many kilometers of desert, until the unexplored country of After, which held inside it time-pockets of Before.
Gradually, we started to get a feel of the place – if not of the time. Many roads were impassable, buried under avalanches of wreckage. But I didn’t stop hoping that one day I would find my baby and my home. I was trying to locate the right bubble where compasses didn’t exactly point to the same north… but the horizon points were more or less stable.
I was patient. I was waiting. I hoped beyond all hope.
For a long time I had been trying to map, with Anda’s help, the unstable perimeter of the wilderness, to direct her towards landmarks on old maps which could be adjacent to our world – monuments, squares, grand buildings. It was slow and tedious work.
We arrived at the Waste Land, at one of the familiar, doleful avenues of After. Everywhere, cement dust, ash, tortured metal and gutted buildings with wooden beams protruding like broken teeth, and not a living soul, beneath the eerie shine of a waning moon which seemed too close and too silver, and bathed the ruins with a disturbing opalescent light. The street had the unnatural quietness of a nightmare.
I didn’t want to think how it would look at daytime.
“Well?” said Anda.
“I think I can get my bearings. This way.”
“Are you sure? The previous times…”
Fuck! There were so many ‘previous times’; so many failed attempts, so many roads that led us to dead ends and downfalls, so many false alarms…
“Yes. Tonight I’m absolutely sure. I can feel it in my bones. Look, the Great Arch! We haven’t come across it before. Turn here. Now I know where we are going.”
And at last, after so many years I found my home, somewhat shabby but still standing, in a pocket of Before, though without knowing when. And instead of the exultation I was waiting for, suddenly I felt frightened, frozen. What would have remained? What would Ι find?
We ascended to the second floor. The door was open. We turned on the lamps on our helmets and started searching the untidy rooms. Had someone been here before us, or it was just the entropy of the Τransposition?
“Hurry up,” said Anda; “I’m risking my hide for you.”
In a cupboard I found my old duffel bag, faded from the sun of so many summer campings. Camping? It’s a laugh. Last time must have been many years ago. Summer? In another life. After the Disaster, sea doesn’t exist anymore.
I grabbed some books and objects and tossed them in the duffel bag.
“Move your ass!”
And then, from the dark corridor appeared my girl. Had I found her at last? Or was I seeing her ghost? Because there were ghosts in the Waste Land. I rushed forward, reached for her… and she disappeared. I staggered dizzily. The floor wobbled. Time flickered. At her place appeared the stray grey cat I was feeding, with the weakest baby of her litter; a piebald, which was always crying. It was tiny, much smaller than I remembered, fitting in my palm. Its fur was dull and matted, its head scabbed, almost bald, an ugly pink like a rat’s paw. It seemed at death's door.
“Are you serious?” said Anda. “There’s no way you can get it in.”
“There’s no way I’m leaving it here. It will die.”
“It will die anyway. Doesn’t look like it will survive. The older one seemed fine.”
“The black one?” I mumbled.
“Black? It was grey.”
I saw what I was longing for, a vision born from my sadness, or had time shifted imperceptibly by my dashing?
“I couldn’t grab her.”
“So, why take this one?”
“Don’t you see it? Don’t you understand? I can’t leave it.”
When we arrived at checkpoint 12 I still held it in my hands. We managed to slip out, but we couldn’t avoid inspection upon entering. There were unmanned passages leading out, without cameras, heat detectors, movement sensors and Geiger counters, as the official points of entry and exit flanking the perimeter had, but it wasn’t certain you could find them returning. Only checkpoints were stable. The authorities didn’t care for those going out –where could they go?– but who, or what, could get in the oppressive, police-ridden, grey and fragile New World. Until now, not a human soul was found out there; just rats, and hungry pets gone feral, whom collectors paid dearly for and pampered. At a dawn we reckoned we heard faraway birdsong; we had never seen birds, but you can never know…
Anda presented the scavenger’s permit, but the potbellied hulk in the booth stared at the kitten. Ι was so afraid it might die in my hands, it didn’t cross my mind to hide it. Such a jerk!
“What is this?”
“It’s a bit sick…”
He took it off my hands, laid it on the counter, looked at it, raised his arm, clenched his fingers and crushed the hairless scull with his fist. Thin, pinkish blood splattered his hand. My mouth opened but no voice came out. I closed it and just stared at him feeling my eyes bulge, bulge, spin.
“It wouldn’t survive,” he said indifferently. “We don’t want monsters in the New World.”
I found my voice and hissed through my teeth “fucking asshole!”, letting out the breath I’d suppressed all this time. I reached for my knife but, before I could draw it, Anda hit me hard on the belly. I doubled in half, hearing her say “Okay, officer, we are leaving. No harm done.”
As she floored the gas pedal Ι shrieked: “You will pay for this, lard-ass! I’ve marked you!”
“Shut up,” said Anda. “Are you mad? He could have registered us.”
Scavengers’ worst fear was to be registered. The permit was expensive, the toll high – so when they could they slipped out at night – and risked their lives each time they entered the Waste Land. While they were well respected, they had to be very careful. Any asshole who had woken up on the wrong side of the bed could register you and single you out, and then they would thoroughly scrutinize you at each checkpoint – and some of the goods scavengers sold couldn’t withstand a careful scrutiny. Only connections could get you off the hook, and we didn’t have many. The New World didn’t differ from the old in this respect. Anda really had risked her hide for me; for a few books and another cat than the one I was looking for.
When the checkpoint’s lights were out of sight, Anda braked. I unfastened my seat belt, opened the door and collapsed on the road.
“Leave me alone.”
“Fuck off.” I was sobbing and pounding the ground with my fists. “For the wrong cat! Why the fuck did Disaster play this cruel joke on me?”
I was crying with hard, ugly sobs. “Leave me alone. I will go home on my own.”
Before I could realize it, with one hand she grabbed me by the hair and with the other picked up my knife from my belt. She kicked me in the ribs with her military boot. I curled up, covered my
head with my hands and continued to sob.
“Okay, go home. I will give you your knife back when you’ve cooled down. I don’t want you to slash your veins and leave me without assistance.”
She kicked me a couple more times for good measure, and the car roared away.
I don’t know for how much time I was crying or when I stopped. My ribs hurt, but I managed to stand up and cope with the half hour’s walk to my home. Some fucking home! An outsider’s bed-sit with furniture scavenged from the streets, some books and a view of other building’s backyards. The only valuable thing was my laptop. Of course, the Internet didn’t exist any more, but I used it as a typewriter, recording my thoughts and experiences, and our expeditions, in the file ‘Now’. It was my diary; an attempt to put in order my sad, chaotic life which roamed from Before to After and suffocated on Now; to map the Waste Land; to track down the most promising passages.
I added the Arch to my incomplete map, which reminded me of old naval maps I had seen in a museum, in another life. There were monsters drawn on the four corners of their known world, along with the sinister warning ‘Here may be dragons,’ because the cartographers of the time didn’t know what was out there, as we didn’t know where we might end up and what we would find.
For a week I wasn’t talking much – mostly I nodded; Anda was watching me warily. At last, she couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Are you still sulking? What was I supposed to do?”
She was right, but I couldn’t get the hideous image out of my mind, or stop feeling betrayed. I hadn’t mentioned my home again.
She brought it up, trying to bridge the chasm between us. “Can you find your home again?”
“I don’t know,” I said sourly. “I have to consult my notes.”
“Do it, and when you are ready, tell me.”
It took me another week to track a shorter route, using landmarks of our space-time that seemed aligned to After; almost stable points which survived on both sides of the Fusion.
This time we got out off a checkpoint, very cool; a few days back we had found some boxes full of old DVD’s which were sold dearly. Our reputation grew. When we arrived at no man’s land, I led her toward the previous time’s direction; we passed the Arch and found again my home’s pocket. It didn’t look shabby anymore, and there was a lit window on the second floor. We looked at each other. The small building’s entrance wasn’t locked. We ascended noiselessly to my apartment. I gently tried the doorknob. It didn’t move. Anda produced her skeleton keys and in half a minute we were in. We switched off our torches and advanced carefully towards the light. It seeped out of a door slightly ajar. We approached on tiptoe. I looked in stealthily, and jumped back feeling my face drain of color.
“What’s in there?” whispered Anda.
I raised a finger across my lips to hush her. We squeezed at the threshold and we saw… me! The woman’s hair was cut in uneven levels and she wore a strange, voluminous dress, but she was me, and she was dandling my little girl, singing to her. I recalled my earlier vision of Night and uttered a cry. The woman lifted her eyes and looked at me; our eyes locked. I felt something like an electric discharge. The floor wobbled; time flickered; the cat and her mistress vanished with the abrupt finality of a burst soap-bubble; the light was extinguished; I howled. I fainted.
I came to my senses outside, on the street. Anda had dragged me down the stairs and laid me on the pavement. She was shaking me.
“Ellie! Ellie, are you with me?”
“I am. Did you see it? I’m not seeing illusions?”
“Holy fuck! I saw it. I saw you! What the hell is going on?”
“I suppose that space-time distortion is very strong here. Probably we turned up at another where from a sidelong road, in a dimension adjacent to our own, where the Disaster didn’t happen;
where another Ellie still lives with my baby in a different reality, where life is as I wish.”
“It’s impossible! Different realities don’t exist. Only the New World.”
“You saw it!”
“Okay, I saw it. What are we going to do now?”
“Let’s leave at once. I don’t know if we are safe here. Let me think.”
That night I was a dead weight – luggage. Anda found a healthy dog and two trunks full of antique clothes. A good haul; our clients were delighted; our reputation increased.
The scavenger’s job is a mix of talent, stubbornness, research, experience and intuition. We had them all, and we started to reap the fruits of our labour. But I didn’t dare to mention my home anymore.
Weeks passed and we hadn’t discussed it. Both of us shrank back. No way would we return there. There were other areas on my sketchy map which led us to good hauls. We were even more alert, concentrated and careful, fearing that we might end up in a marginal bubble, a Before from which no return would be possible. But as much as I tried to put it out of my mind, I was feeling the lure of the life I saw winking to me out of a door pouring light. Somewhere else. In an alien reality where I was happy.
As a scavenger, I had met many scientists and researchers and I started asking questions, discretely trying to gather information, but I was afraid to tell them what I saw. In the New World you can never know what may attract the State’s attention to you, or who is a rat. The official viewpoint of the regime was that now we were completely alone and cut-off, the known universe was lost, and the soap-bubbles were parts of our linear past which, unbeknown to us, were preserved among the ruins. Belief in other dimensions was considered antisocial, almost heretic, and frowned upon. Any possible contact with your previous life, as urban legends said could happen, was unacceptable. In the New World you should have a new self. We had trouble enough with our own Τransposition. We didn’t need other dimensions on top of this. I learned about a few cases like mine, of people who happened to glance for an instant at their life somewhere else, but they hadn’t intended it nor could they comprehend what exactly had happened.
Anda found the great haul at last. We discovered a large public library, with some books eons old, and we were selling it gradually. I managed to stabilize more or less its co-ordinations, and almost every day we succeeded in finding it again and returned loaded. All scavengers envied us. I bought new boots at the black market.
But that half-sighted life still tormented me, like a persistent pain on the ghost-limb of an amputee.
Anda caught a severe cold. She was bedridden, with a high fever. It was the chance I had long been waiting for. I spend the day with her, applying compresses on her forehead, feeding her chicken soup and chatting. About 3 a.m. I told her “I’m worn down; I’m going home to crash. I will be back in the morning.”
“Okay, Ellie. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
She wouldn’t thank me if she knew that her gun was in my knapsack.
It wasn’t difficult to find a dusty rust-bucket parked in a remote alley. Its lock was a joke.
The streets were empty. 3 a.m. The black midnight of the soul. Law-abiding citizens were sleeping the sleep of the just; I could meet only suspicious characters like me, and amongst us rules the code of silence; I saw nothing, I know nothing.
I got out from a secret passage and turned back towards checkpoint 12, as if I was coming from the desert. The lard-ass was dozing. I pulled down the hat hiding my smudged face and my hair and honked. He straightened and looked at me sleepily.
“What do you want?”
I wanted to chop him to pieces with my knife, but I would be nailed. I took the gun from the passenger’s seat, got out of the car and shoved it in his face. I smiled.
“Do you remember me, asshole?”
“What…” he mumbled.
“No? I told you that I’d marked you.”
Recognition fluttered in his eyes.
“I’m so glad you remembered me,” I said, and shot him in the belly. Belly-shots guarantee a slow and very painful death, but I didn’t have time enough to savour it. And I longed to see the spark of despair in his eyes, the realization that his life ended. When he had howled to my heart’s content from pain and terror, squirming like a worm cut in half, and understood very well who I was, I grabbed him by his lapels and we came nose to nose. I told him “You are dead” and shot him point blank between his eyes. Just for fun, I shot the camera once.
While the checkpoints are far from dwellings, I took off as the devil was on my heels. You could never be safe enough.
I left the car where I’d found it, went home, cleaned the gun and shrugged off my bloody shirt. My face in the bathroom mirror seemed drenched by a red rain, and was plastered with diminutive pieces of bone and brain matter. I grinned. I walked into the shower.
At 9 a.m. I was with Anda, smelling of soap instead of gunpowder and blood, cooking breakfast. The gun was in its place, and she didn’t know that I knew where she was hiding it.
Of course, the news spread in our circle like a forest fire. A colleague came to see how Anda was doing and told us the story. Rumours said that the guard was murdered before dawn by a scavenger with an illegal haul.
When he left, Anda regarded me as though she was seeing me for the first time.
“What?” I said innocently.
“Ellie, did you do it?”
“Did you kill him?”
“Has fever cooked up your brain? How could I reach checkpoint 12? Flying on a broomstick?”
“With a car…”
“That I don’t have.”
“Anda, get a grip; what am I? Superwoman? I left whacked; I went home and crashed for five hours. If you don’t believe me, go down and check the odometer. Where could I find a gun? My weapon of choice is the knife. And the murderer was entering. Do you think I’m so mad, I would dare to go out alone in the darkness?”
“But he was…”
“I know very well who he was. That lard-ass. I will piss on his grave if I find where it is. The person who offed him ought to get a medal. He did the world a favour.”
The distrust in her glance started to melt like morning dew, and she averted her eyes.
“Come on, let’s eat,” I said. Good news whets my appetite.”
Anda recovered soon and we continued our expeditions. I was registering every new landmark and patiently, with some deceptive to and fro moves, I was steering her towards my neighbourhood, circling narrower and narrower like a vulture honing onto its prey, trying to locate co-ordinations and distances between the pockets of the area. I was leading her to bubbles we had visited before, observing how they had changed and which way they had moved, like boats with full sails drifted by the wind, and how this would affect my inquests; and to new ones, exploring them, trying to understand if they were significant or not, if I could depend on them for provisions or shelter while continuing my search. Some were more distant, didn’t interest me right now, but the more I learned the better I would be prepared for any weirdness or problem. It was good to know what I could expect, more or less, there, if I was forced to a hasty retreat threatened by some ghost, the few, thank God, uneasy blood-lusting shadows, which hadn’t yet found rest; or by some new, unimaginable and improbable danger. My maps were continually enriched. I had already started to detect some vague routes which were connected.
Although much speculation had been made about the soap-bubbles, nobody had yet understood their nature and their significance. Ahead of me lay a horizon of endless knowledge, the greatest adventure in the world, greater than the Odyssey; because each one had its own particularities, era and secrets; a little different every time, enough to fill my time and refresh my mind while I was trying to achieve my goal. I wondered where and how far into Before they could reach; the Waste Land is vast, and most of it is still unexplored like a virgin forest. We had never got very far in the past. Who knows how deep some pockets were, assuming that many realities could coexist inside them? Who knows what could I discover, or encounter? Dinosaurs? Unicorns? If so, why not a black cat?
Whatever was laying in wait for me, I wasn’t afraid; to have seen yourself eye to eye was much scarier than any nightmare the Disaster could have spawned. Perhaps there may be dragons? Things and entities which weren’t yet found in the Waste Land, hidden in its uncountable, unexplored dimensions? I was sure. That other Ellie couldn’t be their only inhabitant. Would I meet other people or… other creatures? Would I be able to synchronize and communicate with them, or would we remain presences which tried to touch each other but failed? Elusive images, unreachable visions… or maybe hallucinations born of weariness, need and obsession?
I didn’t care if I would meet dragons; I would decide what to do then. I had my goal. I had the great quest ahead of me. I was prepared to suffer patiently and make any sacrifices I needed to.
When I managed to gather as much data as my impatience allowed me, I updated my maps for the last time in the New World, pondered my chances and started to prepare and buy the provisions I needed. Never from the same merchant. I didn’t want to arise suspicions.
And now I was as ready as I could be. I asked Anda to get out tonight and find my home’s pocket again.
We were traveling silent beneath a bloated full moon which dusted deceptively the ruins with silver glitter; when we arrived at the Waste Land’s point bordering the bubble of my Before, I told her “Leave me here”.
“Leave me here.”
“Are you mad?”
“No. But I will become mad if I stay anymore in the New World. I haven’t had a moment’s peace since I saw my… since I saw that other dimensions really exist.”
“Ellie, you mustn’t say such things.”
“Don’t play dumb. You saw it with your own eyes.”
“But you can’t return there! Another Ellie lives there.”
“I know, but my child exists into this bubble. I saw her twice. When I tried to grab her that first night, time shifted and we turned up in a reality where just the grey cat and her baby existed. Who knows how large this pocket is and how many realities intersect there? So, if in one of those my Night lives with another Ellie, I have the same possibilities to find her somewhere alone, waiting for me to return from work, in another fold of time where the Disaster hasn’t happened. Opportunities will open in front of me like a peacocks’ tail. Every day, every time I would enter again, at every imperceptible shift, new possibilities will bloom. I will camp here and search them all to find her.”
“You are crazy! This is insane!”
“Sanity is a movable holiday.”
I stared at her deadpan.
“How will you survive?”
“As the strays we find; if they can find food, I can, too. What the fuck! I can even eat a rat! I have my knife, a gun and lot of ammunition, enough food for some days, my laptop and a sack full of batteries, my notes and my maps. Don’t worry. I left you copies. We know that in the soap-bubbles useful things exist; canned food, tools and weapons, even energy. I will explore them one by one gathering provisions. Surely, I won’t be bored, or in need of fuel.”
I unfastened my seat belt and got out; I hauled from the boot my overstuffed, faded from the sun of so many old summers, duffel bag, which I had hidden under our gear. She got out, too.
“I wonder. Did anybody enter a bubble with respect, without greed or impertinence, not intending to have fun or make a fortune? Someone who didn’t want to extract but embrace? To be reconciled with the life from which they were torn off violently and perhaps still exists, somewhere? Is it possible that the soap-bubbles react to our presence, our plunder, moving to different realities which are created by a living, conscious, sentient time, the great stream pervading all levels of existence and of matter, intersecting infinite dimensions? Who knows what happened to the rest of the world? Was it just us who were catapulted somewhere else by the super-weapons, or was the entire world shattered for its hubris, punished for its arrogance, and its wreckages spinning cut-off, crazily, a thousand lost islands like us in the infinitive ocean, the blue nowhere? Might it be that time broke us like a dry twig on its knee and kept in its bosom some pockets which are, by virtue, benevolent? Realities without war, without animosities, without the Great Disaster? Where some valiant and dedicated souls would be granted, after their plight, the Holy Grail of the Correct Moment in Time and unite with the reality they long for? Could all of Before exist into After?
I had started to shout, gesticulating madly.
“What do we know about time? Might it be that time is sacred? That time is God, the omniscient, omnipresent and filling all things, the even-handed, the merciful and the punisher? Would He hear my prayers and have mercy on me if I beg with bitter tears, if I promise to worship Him and pay back anything He would ask, if I create the Theology of the Soap-Bubble? That, by jumping from one pocket to another my body, my cells, my material substance, my elemental structure, would be changing imperceptibly with each new move, always leaving behind a minuscule piece of myself as an offering? That time would sculpt me, adding to, and removing from, whatever He deems proper, polishing my flaws, chiselling my power? That, as I won’t return to the New World, I would search and survive popping in and out of Before, dawdling away less and less into After without growing old, gradually distilling and absorbing the essence and experience of the dimensions? Having all the time in the world and even more for my quest, exploring the elusive time-pockets for my necessities and my child, learning to give and take, to handle an endlessly reconstructing self? Will I be me anymore? I don’t know and don’t care. I will remain an indefatigable force seeking what it misses until its last breath. Perhaps I will find it in a world not ruined and grey, with summers and sea. Perhaps one dawn I will hear birds’ song, and see them flying on the cloudless blue sky!”
I howled at the moon like a jackal: “Time, Time, are you here? Will you make me immortal?”
Anda’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets. I saw goosebumps on her arms. She stepped back, terrified, as I approached her.
“Ellie? Ellie, you are out of your mind. What’s all this nonsense? Are you nuts? Pull it together!”
Her voice had reached hysteria. She raised her hands to fend me off as if I would lash out at her. Tough Anda had broken, and inside her was a little girl trying to close her eyes and ears, to refuse the implacable reality.
“Why do you want to be lost into Before, Ellie? You have me. You have your life.”
“What life? Trying to reconstruct my lost time alone in a shack, mad from pain? Whatever you say won’t change my mind. I don’t want to live half a life anymore; I want my real life back. I want my baby back. I want to wake up!” I shrieked.
Anda stared at me totally freaked out.
“Do you believe this stuff?”
“Of course I believe it,” I said hoarsely. My vocal cords ached. “Do you think I’m pulling your leg?”
“Ellie? Ellie, please! You are scaring me!”
Her eyes brimmed like flowers filled with rain, but she was trying not to cry, as if crying would seal the inevitable. I took her hands in mine.
“Goodbye, Anda. You are my only friend and I love you, but I love my Night more. If I stay I will die from my sorrow. Don’t worry. Assistants will be queuing at your door.”
We stared at each other for a while, and then she hugged me. Now she was crying.
“Ellie, stay with me…”
“No, Anda; no, my dear. If you want what’s best for me, let me go.”
She asked again, desperate: “Are you sure?”
The discussion was over.
“I will miss you, Ellie. We had a good time together. Be careful.”
I hugged her back.
“We had a good time, Anda. I’ll miss you, too. But I will be happier here, searching for my Night, having a goal at last, a reason to live. The greatest adventure a mind can grasp. Don’t worry, I will be careful. I have to stay alive to find her. Go home now.”
I stroked her hair and led her to the car.
As she turned on the engine, I leaned against the window.
“Do you remember that lard-ass, Anda? I killed him. You were right. I lied.”
© Maria Petrou (2021)
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Collections just released or soon-to-be include; 'Sacred & Profane' by Peter Bell (Sarob Press), 'Strange Waters' by Jackie Taylor and 'Accidental Flowers' by Lily Peters (Arachne Press), the latter described as “a novel in short stories”… 'Among The Lilies' (Undertow Publications) … 'Dreamland: Other Stories' (Black Shuck Books) ...'Azerbaijan Tales,' three long stories and a poem by Albert Power (Egaeus Press) … 'Look Where You Are Going, Not Where You Have Been' by Steven J. Dines (Luna Press) described as "a hauntingly beautiful collection" ... Brian Stableford's admirable literary sweatshop of translation continues with an equally admirable continuation of Snuggly Books unearthing Jean Lorrain with 'Princesses of Darkness & Other Exotica.' Volume 5 of Brian Showers uncanny Swan River Press anthologies – 'Uncertainties' – intriguingly features one entry by the sainted Alan Moore ... Also on Swan River is a new edition of 1924's pleasingly obscure 'The Fatal Move & Other Stories' by Conall Cearnach. Finally, the equally sainted Steve Rasnic Tem has a second collection published by Valancourt Books: 'Thanatrauma.'