3LBE #14
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Mascots and Martyrs

by Jai Clare

 

In the emptying road, a street poet stands on a fruit box and recites words about war. His speech is long and staccato, and reaches out to the people scurrying around him. He wears no poppy. From the shadows, I watch others refusing to listen to what he says about Homer and the sins of Achilles and Agamemnon and the futility of war. He’s strangely unmoving, as if he’s a mannequin mouthing a pre-formed script; I almost expect him to come down from his fruit box and walk away to the nearest joining station.

Even in the outskirts, streets once used to have a carnival atmosphere, especially in the summer, with street theatre, outside cafés and the children running everywhere. Not just one lonesome unconvincing minstrel.

I leave him as he begins his recitation once more, shouting into the glowing darkness as night cleaners sweep the streets. Orrin is out here somewhere.

Around the corner I see a group of soldiers across from me. I back into the shadows. One comes closer and I can see his face. Normal for the most part, though his skin is shiny, almost luminescent, as if covered in plastic. His eyes are like blue flames. I realize what he is, what type of creation, and it is horrifying.

The man comes over to me. But I can’t really call him a man. No lover will caress that skin; no child will touch that face and call him father. Thank god they are supposed to be impotent. I am surprised they are out so openly. The war must be worse than they tell us.

“I’ll let you touch if you want.” His companions laugh and they all come over. I am backed against a dry wall that scrapes my arms. His breath is foul and fetid, like he’s been eating old socks and dirt boots. I push out my hands and turn my head. Those eyes are frightening. He presses against my hand and rolls against it, as if he has breasts he wants me to feel. My hand buckles. Then the mad soldier falls against me. Shaken, it takes a long time for him to stand back up. I feel like puking. Finally, he moves on. His companions laugh. I can feel the touch of his plastic skin on my face. It feels like jelly, clammy, like something foreign and cold.

I go in the opposite direction, and walk down a wide street of seemingly all clothes superstores. Orrin was seen in an open part of town. This is what I can’t get over. Orrin wouldn’t park himself outside a major retail outlet watching the holiday shoppers. He just wouldn’t. Too exposed.

“Was he wearing a poppy?” I had asked Billy earlier this evening, as we walked through the suburbs with their neat houses, neat gardens. The train system had reached that far and spewed out commuters, mainly female, like diarrhoea. I had smiled at them hurrying home and thought of my island where I grew up: the gannets and the sea eagles and the village of white houses clinging to the curved bay. The beautiful light in summer and the terrifying wind spitting out sea spray. I hadn’t been home for years.

• • •

Had Billy really seem Orrin? Or was he lying? Such a weird kid, Billy is, with his sticky blond hair, ruffled by sleep. Always wearing skirts, usually bright yellow sarongs, and speaks with a fake falsetto. He wasn’t gay, though he probably swings both ways. His constant wearing of dark glasses was unsettling. Last time we were in the city he’d thrown some kind of fit; lying on the floor like a rabid dog while everyone scattered from him. Everyone split when the police and medics arrived and Billy, wearing an orange sunset around his legs, was carried away still struggling, his body flexing up and down like a parody of a performing gymnast or the act of sex. And then his dark glasses had fallen off, exposing his strange eyes, which I have never forgotten. Pale grey iris blending into grey cornea, and a pinprick for a pupil. Billy saw me staring at him as they pumped sedative into his arm. And he slowly smiled.

I fingered the gene machine in my pocket, wondering how I could use it on him, to find out what was going on in his blood.

Billy nodded. “The biggest poppy, Ellen. One of the new ones. Could see it clear across the square.”

“He was just standing there?”

“Leaning against the post of the entrance. Like he was waiting for something.”

“Anything in particular?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Did it arrive?”

“He was there about half an hour and then he just walked away.”

“And you didn’t follow him?”

“Why should I?”

“Sure it was Orrin?”

“Doubting me now, Ellen?”

“I doubt everything all of the time. We’ll go this way.” I led them away from the suburbs and through the older areas, occupied primarily by single people and youngsters not yet gone to war. It was darker there, we felt less exposed under the trees and overhanging roads.

“Put on your poppies.” I said. “You never know who we’re going to meet.” The city was supposed to be jammed full of soldiers whose DNA had been changed for war. Billy was not a soldier, his gene changes were from an earlier experimentation program. I kept fiddling with this alien poppy as we walked quietly, heads down.

And then there was the city.

Before the war, new buildings were going up. Someone’s dream that the city would be the most beautiful city in the world. Wide plazas full of water running down steps. Various shades of white brickwork. Seemingly endless trees vying with the buildings for height and dominance. Here, no one would live in slums. Those who couldn’t afford to live in the white city would be transported to other parts of the country. The war stopped all that. Some developments were finished and beautiful. Others were still covered by tarpaulin and scaffolding, whistling skeletons in the wind.

Once safely in the city, we split up. Cate shuffled to the nearest public restroom while Billy lurched over to a pub full of last drinkers.

“Be at the Pigeon Park by seven pm! Seven! Do you hear me?!” They yelled yes indifferently, as if they were glad to be away from me.

We look for Orrin in many places. Look in alleys, I told them, underground, on trams that scuttle around the city like happy beetles. In shops, in cafés playing loud music, where toast is always hot; in steamy places with billiard tables and girls. Always look for girls.

There’d been so many sightings of Orrin that I had come to believe he was dead. As must my parents believe about me. Once I’d tried to phone them, but I didn’t know what to say. I’m hiding out. If they find me I’ll be sent to the Army—straight to the front—or to prison. And I’m too bloody-minded and too full of myself to accept either!

I had short hair, back when I lived in this city; neat and flat behind my ears, something to be forgotten. And clean, ironed clothes. From the inside one of the white square houses came the seductive smell of warm food, a familiar smell of my previous safe existence. For a moment, it was everything I could possibly want.

“Try to walk upright,” I had said, pulling Billy by his arms and jerking him upwards. “You look like a chimp. Do you want to get in and out without getting caught?”

I decided then that it wasn’t going to work. These two were liabilities. Cate’s unwashed, sun-bleached hair was dry, lifeless and falling over her face; her neck smudged with dirt. And Billy, the freak who’d brought the news of Orrin. I feared for them out here, Miller was not someone to play with. I wanted to comb their hair, fit them out with the last fashions, scrub their necks. Make them normal. I fiddled the gene diviner hidden deep in my pockets, wondering if I could find the gene for social deviancy to account for us.

I’d be better off disbanding everyone, going underground. Only to re-emerge smelling like pine or lemon, like these anaemic houses. Or even going home. None of us are warriors, or fit to be agitators. I loathe how we were forced into it by the war. And by others. Like Miller, who in turn forced Aidan, Orrin and I when he blew up our base.

I never knew whether to refer to him as Doctor or Major Miller. Which side of his roles dominated? As a doctor, the man wanted to heal people. Yet the science major produced technology to kill them. The gene reader is his precious project.

I walk on, looking for Orrin on every corner. Behind me, the street poet begins again. He has a nice voice. There are still people around, including soldiers. Soldiers always remind me of Aidan. It’s two years now, I think, two years since we found Aidan’s body close to our original base. Since then we’d been attacked and scattered over the land like wind-blown seeds. We scurried underground, to scrap for food, to steal food from isolated farmhouses and villages. We visited the city only sometimes. Carefully, wearing poppies and the correct badges, spending our time doing what Aidan and Orrin originally set out to do: cultivating anti-war feeling among those too scared to own up to them. Even in a democratic society, those who disagree can be treated just as badly as if they lived in a fascist one.

Everywhere shop windows feature the latest fashions and war posters honoring the recent splendid war dead. A new religion has grown around a few honored soldiers. A special place in heaven is assigned to them, the defenders of the right and of the country. People flock to dedicated chapels on the weekends. When the dead come home, usually in small pieces, some frost bitten from the battles in the north, people rally like groupies around airports and the departing hearses. The posters are bright and shiny. The clothes lurid. Silk squaddie trousers are this season’s must-have items in neon pink and pond green. In daylight, the streets have lots of poppy sellers and grinning on-leave squaddies wandering the streets like mascots and martyrs and targets and fools. I steer clear of them, clinging to the walls like someone with acrophobia. Things have become manic; people hurry more, rushing to get everything done before the night-time bombing, rushing to the grocery store, rushing home when they once lingered in the city. Everyone knows the suburbs are safer, fewer easy targets.

The war began over a blade of grass. That’s what the comics said. And everyone laughed at this. They want this war, want the energy it brings, the excitement. The smell of desire is palpable: the desire for destruction. We are blood-loving monsters. Piranhas and werewolves walk the streets.

Condensation has already formed on the windows of the Pigeon Park by the time I arrive. I wait a few minutes hanging on the outside like a waif or the matchstick seller. A few people enter, others leave. Society’s sad dregs and trendy slummers. It’s good that places like this all-nighter still exist. A refreshing relief amidst all the white buildings.

The wailing begins far to the east. People stand in silence, watching the skies. After a long time, it’s evident no bombers are coming. They never do, though the howling continues in earnest. The door opens and Cate comes through.

“Who’s here?” I peer through the door, trying to assess the shapes at tables and at the pool table. I don’t really want to go in. On the streets, I felt ecstatic. The city lives on war fear and I love it. I hate how Kray, my one time lover, had been proved right when he told me that living close to death was the only way to feel alive. Fuck him.

“Billy and his mate, someone called Talis Halnaker.”

“No Orrin?” It was too much to expect. As were the chances of finding anyone left with our views.

The enemy had broken inside our borders months ago, it was reported. They were advancing viciously, we were reminded. Any day could bring them into the city, we could not forget. Fewer of us noticed the reports were always the same. Resolve and patriotism were mounting. The war might be in danger of stagnating, if not for the recruitment program.

“Afraid not, Ellen.” Cate had never meet Aidan and Orrin but she acts as though their very names are gods to her.

I enter the steamy café reluctantly. I’ve looked for Orrin everywhere, and I feel defeated. No one talks as I approach. I think of the island: the buzzard circling the pinnacle hill, shaped like a bulbous nose jutting over the hammerhead bay. The houses, the petty arguments over land, over mussel quotas, over disposal of old vehicles. The freedom, the light. The island.

• • •

Talis Halnaker greets me first. He shoves out his large hands, which look even larger in his small frame. I look briefly at him, casually even, ignoring his handshake. He seems nonplussed by this.

“Anything to report?”

“Have something to eat or drink,” says Talis. “Order toast or tea.”

I stare hard at him now. “Just who are you?”

“You must be starving.”

“Back off.”

Talis holds his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender. Billy laughs and Cate smiles. Billy leans forward then. “This is Talis. He’s not from around here.”

“Really?” I turn away. “Now, who has seen Orrin?”

“I have.” I am forced to turn back to Talis once more.

“Where? How do you know it was Orrin?”

“I saw him yesterday on the road north.”

“The road to the front? On his own?”

“Looked like it.”

“What did he look like?”

“Big guy. Old army coat, seen better days.”

“Hair color?”

“Dirty blond. Think he may be losing it.”

“Scars?”

“Not that I could see, though what was in his mind I couldn’t judge. He looked scared. Twitchy, you know, always looking around him. I thought he was a druggie. Seen a lot of that sort of thing.”

I wince. Orrin. I can’t imagine what he’s been doing or what he’s been through. Maybe they’ve used him for some of the rumored elevated gene-experiments. What they will do to win the war.

Sometimes I wonder whether it would really be so bad to be ruled by the enemy. At least there wouldn’t be any war.

• • •

I don’t know what to do now. Go follow Orrin north, or give up on him and return west to safety. Find somewhere more remote to live. Dig up and relocate Aidan’s grave to a permanent place. Get a life. Is such a thing possible, I wonder?

Someone turns the music up. Someone else takes over the billiard cues and begins a new game. The rest of the dingy café hums.

Billy stands up, scratching his orange stubble growing on his chin, before scraping back his plastic chair. “You got what you wanted, yeah? You got your information. I gotta go.”

“Yeah, sure, Billy, whatever. Thanks for your help.”

“Right.” He squeezes past my chair, catching his sarong beneath one of the feet. I smile and lift up my chair to let him escape. “I’m just going to check out a friend of mine. He may know what’s happening up that way. Orrin can’t have gone far, not in the state he was in. I’ll be back here later tonight.”

Then Cate leaves for some club, and it is just Talis and me sitting holding onto steaming mugs of tea and chomping endless toast while the occupants around us slowly change until the pre-club scene wanders in for a quick game. Sometimes I look at Talis. A small man, but deceptively so, thin, like a delicately shaped handle. Glowing skin and a mass of wavy hair and small almost oval brown eyes that when they catch the florescent light seemed to get much lighter.

We say nothing. I try to finish off the toast quickly. The charred bits make me cough.

“Why are you here?” asks Talis.

“What?”

“Where’s home? You’re no more from here than I am.”

“Where you from?”

“Miles away. An island off another continent. No one’s ever heard of it. Why are you involved in all this?’

I feel the paradoxical need to hit him and yet answer his question. “An island? I’m from an island.”

“People from islands are different.”

“Yeah right. We’re odd.” I laugh, remembering my cold distant father and his quiet aloofness, his need for silence and place to be by himself, which my mother was happy to do. I gulp more of the strong acidic tea, coming to the end of the mug.

“You seem to have taken on rather a lot.”

“Don’t you think I can cope?”

“I have few doubts.” His voice is wavers at the high end of the tenor range. It gives him a slightly genial, unprepossessing air that is at odds with the rest of his demeanor. It makes him human. Talis Halnaker makes me feel inferior. It is taken for granted he knows everything, has seen everything on his travels. He makes me itch, hang my head, I don’t like to meet his eyes. I withdraw my feet from near his.

“But it’s not really you, is it?” he says. “Wouldn’t you rather be at home?”

“I no longer have that luxury.”

“Neither do I.”

There is silence for a moment until I crunch another bite of hard buttered toast. A bit of charred corner shoots off and ends up on the white formica table.

“I can’t go home,” I tell him. “I’d feel guilty… I’d… Aidan and Orrin got me involved. If I were going home, I’d have done it ages ago.”

“Why not now? Can’t you feel things are worsening?”

“The war seems to be slowing. There’s more troops in the streets.”

“Um.”

“On leave!” It doesn’t come out with much conviction.

“Not necessarily.”

I get a flashback to Aidan and Orrin asking me questions about my beliefs and convictions. I had convictions then. Now I have memories and guilt and the faint idea that what Aidan and Orrin had tried to do was the right one.

“Have you still got the gene reader?”

I just stare at this man. I can’t believe I’d really heard him right. Oh God, I miss the sea, the smell of salt on the wing, the noise of the bloody gulls and the low moans of wandering sheep. The sound of water against granite rock, the frantic squall of oystercatchers. I miss the anonymity.

“Say that again. Quietly.”

“Is it still in your possession? Do think it safe?”

“How do you know about it?” Talis looks away, out the window.

“How could you possibly know about it unless…? Have you spoken to Orrin? You have spoken to Orrin. He must guess I’ve got it. How could he be so sure though? How? Unless he’s been watching us, then why didn’t he make himself known? For god’s sake, Halnaker, tell me what you know.”

“Not bad guesses.” He smiles shyly and his face becomes suddenly boyish instead of all-knowing.

I have to be out of that room and away from him. I enter the dark streets, instinctively turn right, and not left, checking on what’s in my pocket. It’s rained and the pavement smells like crushed honeysuckle.

I walk on, regretting everything, looking carefully round every corner. A car chugs past me, slowly, asthmatic, gaining strength and then it races on ahead. I stop, realizing now I have no idea where I am going. If Orrin were out here in the streets, I wouldn’t see him anyway. I berate myself for my stupidity and begin to turn around. Better to look for Turners. Just ahead I see a boy under the faint streetlight, he’s tugging on a leash, tugging on a mongrel dog. The dog is stubborn and refuses to budge. The boy begins to hit the dog with a stick and I just stop myself from crying out. The boy drops the leash and runs away, and it strikes me, quickly and unexpectedly, that it might be better for everyone if the Turners were left alone with their unformed views, their instincts. That it was easier if they were made to Affirm, to get on with their part in the war, that being like me, Ellen, was no future. I see only the degradation, the smallness, and the shabbiness. The crap. At least if I’d gone and fought, I’d be legitimate. I’m not happy in shadow’s clothes.

I touch the cold gene reader again. Why not hand this in now and give up? Hand myself over for whatever punishment they’d give me? I know perfectly well why. I cannot escape the feeling of wrongness I have for this war, for what they are doing to the soldiers. The war could have been settled any other way, should have. What is it to me, this piece of territory out in the mountains? What is it to the people of the city?

I’d been standing still for some time and my feet are wet. Always my feet were wet. In the country or in the city, I am pained with wet feet. I head back to the café. Head down against the rain, I don’t notice until it was too late, and nearly walk into Talis Halnaker. He must’ve been following me at a discreet distance, like a guard, a protector. Or a spy.

“Who are you Talis, where you from?” I try to shrug off his grip on my arms.

“I’m like you.” This is not the answer I’m expecting. Perhaps something like a Traveller. Or someone from nowhere, or nobody important.

“You know nothing about me, how can you know you’re like me?’

“You always want to be somewhere else. Ever since I was five I have wanted to be somewhere else and when I get to that place I want to be somewhere else again.”

“Where do you want to be now?”

“Anywhere but here.” I smile.

“But I know where I want to be.” Suddenly it is very clear that I shouldn’t be here. Nor should I be out west looking after badgers and cleaning up after errant pacifists. I should be back on the island. I had always known this but somehow it wasn’t that easy before.

“That thing in your pocket could get you into an enormous amount of trouble. If it hasn’t already.”

“I would say it had.” I remember Aidan’s corpse, curled up under a rock, his face contorted and wrinkled, as though his body had aged eighty years in the moments before death. His hands knotted and thin and clutched into himself in fear. I’d never known Aidan to experience fear. He’d been in the army, won medals, and had been terribly scarred… as if scars were proof. In death, his scars had disappeared, swallowed by fleshy plough furrows. Miller had experimented on him. Around this time, many people had disappeared, others had turned up changed.

• • •

I walk back through the clean, damp streets with Talis Halnaker, knowing before the day is out that I would sleep with him, make him mine.

At the café, both Billy and Cate are already seated though the rest of the place is strangely quiet. Billy makes salt patterns on the table and Cate chews her fingernails. Nobody looks comfortable.

“News?” I ask, since no one is talking.

It seems like no one has anything to say, so I’m not looking at Billy when he speaks. “Orrin’s coming here.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. And Talis leans forward with disbelief all over his boyish face.

“He’s coming here. I saw someone who knows where he is and told him you’d be here, though he could be a while.”

“Don’t believe you. Didn’t you say Talis had seen him heading north?”

“I don’t think he got very far. From the sound of it he ended up in a refugee camp.”

People disappear from the refugee camps, it is common knowledge. The gene reader is used to identify those suitable for army training, to identify cowards and those ripe for modification. They take anyone they want. Recruitment legislation was revised during this war, along with the new genetics laws. Though the war seemed to be ending, they feared it could start up again and no one wants to fight twice. Chemical warfare had peaked, and there seemed no counter weapon technology to tip the stalemate. Until they turned inward, and altered the soldiers. When Orrin stole the gene machine to blackmail the government, to opening the truth, he had no idea what he was getting into. The café quietens and the steam slows to a mere mist hovering over the counter. We are the only people left in the place. The billiard table is quiet and the radio no longer plays. I feel uneasy and keep looking around, glancing outside. The room smells of hamburgers and fear. Billy makes spirals out of salt on the table. Talis stands up and walks towards the door.

“I’m not even part of this conflict.” He says, and I panic at the thought he would disappear. Like Aidan, like Orrin. Sometimes I even wonder about Kray. “I should be at home.”

“Exactly where is home?”

“You wouldn’t know.” The road outside seems normal. People lurching to the few clubs still allowed to operate. A siren sounds. An engine stops. Someone beeps a horn and car doors slam. Billy twitches. Cate dries her soggy fingernails on her jeans and I stare at the ceiling.

Then a siren sounds twice and Billy shoots up, nearly tripping over his sarong: “Orrin will be here soon. I’ve got to go. Don’t feel well. Another fit.” He is out that door before anyone can register what is happening.

• • •

They come through the doors quietly then, just as I always pictured they would. They come in like customers, and like friends they calmly sit next to Talis, who has returned to the table. Miller, a man with a beard, and another one who motions for Talis to leave while holding Cate’s in her seat.

“Orrin not here then?” says the one without the beard. “Did you really expect him to be?” He speaks with a cultured country accent, like he’s been trying to lose the evidence of his origins for many years and not quite succeeding. Occasionally he rolls his r’s and winces whenever he hears himself doing it.

He is talking to me, and I can’t meet his gaze. “The gene reader. You’ll never use it. It’s not like you to be that devious.”

“I wouldn’t be so certain,” I say, almost glancing at him.

“I’ve been told,” says Miller, “that because we are a free society, and though you’ve broken laws, you’ll be free to go once we have my machine back.”

“You mean you can’t let the public know about it?”

The men with Miller move to my sides, pin back my arms and delve into my pockets. Their hands hurt my thin arms. I wriggle until I feel my skin turning red. Then the machine, which is small, hard, made from steel, and flips open to reveal a pad where blood is analyzed, is out into the air. Miller grabs it. And I feel the relinquishment of burden.

Burden floats away out of the door with Miller. And is gone.

• • •

The gulls are noisy as we get closer to their nests, walking ungainly over shit-splattered rock towards the sea. Talis falls and I run to make sure he doesn’t slip into the cool water. Father follows behind, carrying the binoculars and stick. It is windy and nobody can hear anything each other says but the sun shines and the Sound is clear of seagoing vessels.

The war stopped some time ago, the disputed territory was defended and the enemy finally receded. But it was an uneasy win. Our army had long since been given orders that coming home was not an option. But still it makes people happy that there will be no more bombs. I show Talis my favorite spot where I used to sit as a child to watch the gulls on their nests and look for seals, who would slink into the water at my approach but circle around where I sat, bobbing their heads up and down in curiosity. The air is salty and Talis say he feels scrubbed. I laugh. Sometimes we both wonder why we are no longer lovers. Perhaps it is the knowledge that Talis will be on his way soon. Never before have I known anyone with such restless feet. He will stay until Orrin is found.

But today on the island the gulls cry, the oystercatcher panics, and the rocks feel treacherous beneath our feet.

 

 

Jai Clare lives in the UK. Her fiction has appeared in, amongst others, The London Magazine, The Barcelona Review, Zoetrope All-Story EXTRA, Redsine, Roadworks, Buzzwords, forthcoming Cadenza, and Agni. This is her second story in 3LBE. She’s still trying to get novels right enough to be published, she says.


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ISSUE #14

Winter 2004

FICTION

ART