"...the price is worth it"
Graeme K. Talboys
for Mike, with thanks.
All players are equal, or can be made so
08:50 wake-up call.
A faint tremor reverberates within the complex subterranean space. Dust sifts down through stale darkness from overhead pipework. Silence. A fainter vibration chases after the first. More dust, some drifting into the spectral glow of a constellation of stand-by lights.
An ancient video machine purrs up to speed. There is news to record. A comatose figure stirs uneasily as grime settles on his make-up.
Boundaries are well observed by crossing them
“...as the rains turn to snow
And it’s slow, slow, slow
As the colours lose their...”
Una’s whispered singing faltered as the half-track she could hear came into view on the far side of the lake. It stopped by the hotel. The filthy cloud of thick, blue exhaust it had trailed in the gelid air caught up with it, drifted in the sudden silence across the frozen shoreline and out over the still water where it slowly dispersed.
A door opened. Una dropped the sapphire into her bag and pulled out a sniper scope. She watched as the fur-wrapped Miss Brunner stretched and took a few paces toward the ice-bound houseboats. The sound of more doors made Una look back to the rusting vehicle. Captain Maxwell stood in a cloud of steam on the far side with the detached air of a man pissing against the front tyre. Mitzi Beesley stood on the near side passing something in to the boiled corpulence of her father, the Bishop. Frank’s pale, hysteric face loomed in a side window. Beside him, encased in rope, was Mo Collier.
Una scowled. “The gang’s all here.”
And it was only because she’d hoped Jerry would return to the houseboat that she was there to see them.
The Bishop couldn’t manage the steps, but the rest swarmed into the great houseboat like jumble sale locusts. They moved swiftly from room to room as they picked everything over with cold acuity. The hotel manager stood beneath the awning by the door, wrapped in a heavy wool overcoat, watching with anxious eyes.
One by one they returned empty-handed to the lakeside and created their own, small cloudscape in the biting air. Frank half-heartedly scanned the surrounding hillsides, frowning into the heavy old Zeiss. Eventually Miss Brunner emerged, holding a cassette case.
“What’s that?” asked the Bishop.
They all turned to look.
“Roy bloody Harper. Sophisticated Beggar.”
Mo Collier, still tied up in the half-track called out, “Forty years too late,” and began laughing hysterically. The laugh became a lung-expelling cough.
Still fretful, the manager approached. “What,” asked the old man leafing through his phrase book, “is the exact nature of the catastrophe?”
As one, they turned to stare at him. He looked up into their hostile silence and the quivering barrel of Frank’s needle gun.
It was Frank who spoke, voicing their collective thought. “Are you taking the piss?”
On the hillside, Una Persson finally got the joke. She put the parabolic microphone to one side, switched over to her player, and leant back against the Bouin tree. The heavy, exotic riff in her earphones was hypnotic. Under her breath, she sang along: “I am a traveller in both time and space...”
Much later, as she pulled the Kamov Ka-50 sharply into the air, she looked back down with a sigh at the receding town of Muzaffar Abad. Children were playing in the fields by the river beach where the tents would soon be pitched. Some were still waving at her. It had never been this hard before.
Novelty is more fun than repetition
Locked in a comatic nightmare, Jerry Cornelius convulses in his chair. His open eyes flicker like the screen in front of him. The endless images of terror, death, and destruction pass directly to his back-brain where he had hoped he would find sanctuary.
On a table beside him, next to an old photograph, the list is nearly complete. In the shadows, propped against a wall, his time machine has a flat tyre.
“It’s not my fault,” whined Frank as they left the Unicorn Bookshop and climbed the hill. “When he’s like this, he gets nostalgic and heads for Brighton. I thought he might be in there.”
“I don’t know why we listen to you. Last time you told us he was dead, he was idiot-dancing on stage in front of thirty thousand people.”
They trailed after Miss Brunner like a reluctant school party as she strode down Queens Road, finding energy in self-destruction. Mitzi dead-armed Frank for some earlier misdemeanour; Captain Maxwell knocked over a postcard carousel in a delicious moment of madness and ran off down Church Street, laughing maniacally. Mo Collier, doped to the eyeballs and laden with picnic basket, stools, a wind break, and a bag full of chocolate, followed the Bishop on a lead – boy to his Pozzo.
As soon as Brunner and the others had left the shop, Una stepped out from the back office.
“Blonde suits you, Una.”
“Ah, sweet William Huxford.” She touched his arm and smiled.
“The boy seems taken with you.”
She looked across the shop to the long-haired youth. A smile sweetened her lips and she looked at her watch. It was only June 1971. There were a few months to spare.
“What do we do if we can’t find him?” asked Mitzi.
They stood by the Palace Pier looking along the beach to the West Pier. Children flowed back and forth between sedentary parents. The Bishop had disappeared behind a pink floss cloud.
“There’ll be no bloody ‘End of the Pier’ show, that’s for certain,” Miss Brunner snapped.
Дети убитые в осаде школы
Fragmented images flash on the screen: crowds gathered on street corners, talking, pointing, faces strained with dread; groups of young soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms who clearly have no idea what they’re meant to be doing, holding their rifles as if scared of them; news crews.
And on the third day, through morning mist and smoke, comes a firecracker cascade of gunshots that starts people running. The young soldiers look for someone to give them orders. A car vomits flame and thick smoke. Children start appearing – children carried, children running, stripped, blood-covered, crying tears that will never wash away the things they have seen. The stretchers fill up with corpses covered with clear polythene sheeting. Men broken into angry helplessness, unable to protect their offspring, stand and cry. Mothers squat, inconsolable, rocking back and forth as they caress the dead.
Rules are negotiable from moment to moment
The tape machines continue to feed images to Cornelius. Thoughts of his unborn child who must, by now, be in her twenties, or maybe her fifties, are hauling him painfully up from the toxic depths of his coma. In some ‘60s venue of his mind, Hendrix opens up with ‘All Along the Watchtower’. He begins to relax.
20:59 wake-up call.
They're rockin' in Bagdad, having a ball
Jumping in Bagdad, climbing the wall
Bagdad's rocking tonight...
Fiery the angels fell... And as they fell deep thunder rolled around their shores, indignant, burning with the fires of Orc.
A cry of Hell Hounds never ceasing bark'd
With wide Cerberean mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous Peal.
Elegant ministry buildings erupted all along the banks of the Tigris – Baghdad orange blossom.
They heaped the peach coloured sand with care, with love. It was only a small mound, shaped with elegant, starved fingers, leaving ridges down its sides as if it had been turned out of a jelly mould.
He stood first, leaning with great weariness on his staff, his torn robes snapping in the hot wind. She remained crouched, keening, singing a lullaby, crying. Then, exhausted, she stood as well. Beneath the hot sun they said one last prayer over the grave of their baby and began the long walk back to the feeding station, picking their way with care between the myriad rows of tiny sandcastles.
The killing wind continued to blow, smoothing, wearing away, grain by grain by grain…
Stragglers crossed the sand, faces wrapped against the pale Saharan dust. They made for the shade of a thorn tree where hundreds of Masalit already sat, mourning those butchered in the crossfire. Despite their hunger and chronic pain, the children shed no tears. There was not enough moisture in their bodies. Their lungs dry and infected, they gasped hot air through fly encrusted mouths.
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk aroun'
Oh hear the word of the Lord.
Sedately-paced russet Bactrians moved along the dry road between the neat mushung fields in the spring sunshine. Children laughed, chasing through the dusty, dun coloured village, some carrying rifles with disturbing familiarity. Old men watched silently from the shade of an ancient mulberry tree.
Bastable was cautious. Years in the sun had darkened his skin and his beard was greying, but his was not a Hazaran face. Una, crop-haired, dressed as a boy, a Kalashnikov slung over her shoulder, seemed less concerned.
Once the camel train had passed, they moved on down the road away from the village, keeping to the shade of the tall, night-green deodar and juniper trees.
Una felt his disappointment. Of all the temporal adventurers, his desire to return home was strongest. The great Bamiyan Buddhas, Professor Hira had thought, might conceal a gate, but in every Afghanistan he had visited they had been destroyed and the caves sealed.
“Oh well,” he said finally, “at least the Cornelius girl is safe.”
Una stopped. It took a lot to surprise her. She laughed.
Risk in pursuit of play is worth it
He watches the wave. He watches it from the beach and he watches it from buildings. He watches it in silence as bedlam surrounds him. In the distance, too far to be warned, a man stands up in the shallows and turns and is gone. Tourists run for their hotels and are gone. Locals, who can draw on the collective memory of five or six generations, have no idea what it is that sweeps down on them. And are gone.
She stood alone up to her ankles in mud and up to her throat in disease. Everything had gone wrong. The co-ordinates should have placed her by the harbour. A boat was supposed to be waiting. There was even meant to be time for a meal.
She looked around again, but the rough plain of drying mud was all there was to see. That and the silent blue sky. That and the sullen coppery haze on the distant northern horizon.
As she stood, she began to sense the dead – laid out beneath the clay, still leaking their terror like vapour drawn out by the heat of the sun.
The best play is beautiful and elegant
A photograph. Monochrome. Five inches by three inches with white border. Two young boys, clearly siblings, stand either side of a pushchair. They wear shabby jerkins and short trousers. One has a grubby handkerchief tied round his left knee. Both have sullen expressions. They stand on a pavement in front of a brick wall. Part of a door can be seen to the left; part of a window to the right. The front end of a Raleigh bicycle that leans against the window sill is also in shot. The tyre is flat. In the pushchair, a young child of indeterminate sex is asleep. Although the subjects are alone, their position and posture suggest an overwhelming presence just out of shot to one side, rather than behind the camera itself.
On the rear of the photograph, written in pencil in a clumsy hand and now faded almost to obscurity is the legend – Frank, Cathy & Jerry.
Without warning, the kingfisher took off from its perch on the houseboat’s roof rail. When it had gone, she relaxed against the cushions, arranging her white cotton dress about her legs. She still felt tired, disorientated, but her skin had colour and she could walk unaided.
The child within her, terrible wonder, grew steady and strong. As she drifted in contented drowsiness, she gripped the itinerary that Jerry had given her: places to be, times to be there.
Liquescent sunlight filled the space beneath the canvas awning on the upper deck, reflected from the clear water of Dal, striking blue scintillae from a sapphire. A breeze caressed, carrying distant lullaby voices of the vegetable sellers in their boats. Around the edges of the lake, trees dissolved in moisture laden summer air.
Infrasonic waves rode in, scattering birds and a group of gray langurs. Moments later the audible reverberation of thunder echoed lazily through the mountains. In buildings along the shoreline, window shutters rattled. She smiled in her sleep.
The purpose of playing is to play, nothing else
He wakes. And hears terrified, hysterical screaming. And realizes, eventually, that it is himself. And when he stops, he knows with a familiar resignation that it would not have been heard above all the other screams of panic and cries of despair that fill the ether.
A tear washes through the black painted teardrop and leaves a grimy track through the dust and white make-up. It is going to be a long, nasty century.
References (in order of appearance)
Lesley Stahl (on US sanctions against Iraq): “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”
(12 May 1996) 60 Minutes, CBS News.
Meeker, J. (1974) The Comedy of Survival, New York: Scribner.
Moorcock, M. (1981) ‘The Entropy Tango’, in The Entropy Tango – A Comic Romance, London: New English Library.
Page, J., Plant, R. and Bonham, J. (1974) ‘Kashmir’, on Physical Graffiti, Atlantic Records Swan Song 2-200.
Дети убитые в осаде школы (Children Killed in School Siege – newspaper headline)
Reed, J. (1957) Rockin’ in Bagdad, Capitol Records F-3731.
Fancher, H. and Peoples, D. (1982) Blade Runner [Dir. Ridley Scott], Warner Bros. deliberately misquoting Blake, W. (1793) America: A Prophecy, ll. 156-7.
Milton, J. (1667) Paradise Lost, Book II, ll. 655-6.