THE FRACKING FACTORY - A Jerry Cornelius Story
For Martin Stone
The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down
Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak.
— Bob Dylan,
‘Workingman’s Blues #2’,
Momma Hated Diesels
“Nice frock.” With the back of his hand Jerry stroked his sister’s linen.
“It’s my fucking frock.” Cathy shivered, as if uncertain what to do next. Breath thickened in the morning air.
“I never doubted it.”
“No,” she said. “I wear it to fuck in.”
“Well, it’s a nice fucking frock.”
She kissed his hand in appreciation. “I love you,” she said. “I’m glad I’m not dead.”
“You were really just hibernating. It’s these weird winter evenings. There’s so much we can do with the climate these days. But you should have woken up last Sunday.”
“Why? What happened?”
Jerry became reluctant. “Hot enough?”
“Now I am. You know how to warm a woman over.”
He shrugged. He wasn’t especially flattered. Girls were almost always enthusiastic about their brothers.
He leaned back as her sweet lips closed on his cock. “That’s the spirit.”
He wondered if this spring would continue as it began. Somewhere a glacier creaked.
“Like that?” She paused to take a breath.
“Good for the garden.” He sighed. You could only hope.
A familiar noise filtered through the windows. Below, in Kreshchatik, the tanks were beginning to tick.
“That reminds me,” he said. “Mum says she wants to see us later. I thought we could go down together.”
“If you don’t think that will be too difficult.”
“Not for me. I do it all the time, these days.”
“She still using that shortcut?”
“Everyone does. You know what it’s like. Instant gratification.” He reached for his Sherman’s and slipped a thin brown fag between his glittering teeth. “Got a light?”
She fumbled in her purse and handed him her Dunhill.
He clicked it a few times. It sparked but that was all.
She was apologetic. “I’m sorry. It’s out of fuel again. It’s frustrating, isn’t it?”
This wasn’t much of a way to celebrate the start of the new Ice Age.
1911 Mods. Making It Your Gun.
Major Nye whistled a selection from Maytime in Mayfair. Michael Wilding and Anna Neagle had never been more delightful that year when he returned from India to peace. His wife was alive, pregnant with their first daughter. While he missed Bengal he was not sorry to be gone. No place for a woman these days. Next week he would start work in Whitehall.
Meanwhile he stretched in his deckchair and admired his garden. Sussex was at her best this time of year. He reached for a teacup. “Pom pom pom tiddly pom ta pom da da.” If the weather held he might take his mare out for a trot across the downs. He smiled to himself. These days his lovely old Jacobean house, with her timbers and red brick, was probably the only place of her kind not occupied by a foreign spy. He didn’t mind. Those chaps made far better gentlemen than the real thing. He checked his watch. Almost time for young Jerry to turn up. 1948! What wonderfully innocent years for them all!
He opened his book. He sniffed the freshly printed cover. Nothing like William Brown and the smell of new-mown grass.
Gary Reeder Revolvers — Wickedly Accurate
Mo Collier put down his copy of World of Firepower. He had expected a bit more of the compact handguns issue but the article on Rugers had whetted his interest in the LCR 357 mag. He opened his wallet. Did they still take English postal orders?
Miss Brunner made a disgusted sound. She refused to look at Mo. “Is he coming back with us or not?”
Bishop Beesley lifted his crumble from the oven.
“Doesn’t that smell good? Believe me, dear lady, I have never regretted my cookery classes. There’s considerable satisfaction in preparing one’s own desserts.”
“Indeed?” Miss Brunner licked her thin, red lips.
“You never feel blue when you’re rolling out your choux.”
Mo accepted a macaroon. “Thanks, vicar. You’re a white man.”
Miss Brunner studied her watch. She was dressed for battle in a powder-grey twinset, a sharply cut blazer, pearls and a well-perched bellboy hat, all late Balenciaga. If that didn’t get the troops back to the 1950s, nothing would.
Mo glanced away. His little heart was racing and his jeans felt far too tight.
“We first met,” she reminded them, “in the tea rooms of Green’s Hotel. Do you remember, bishop? Strawberries… You found the cream a little sour.”
“Of course!” He looked up absently from his trays of fresh-baked pastries. “The Tory Party Conference, I believe.”
She cooled. “Aren’t you thinking of Bognor Regis?” But she went unheard as he breathed in the complex dulcification. Momentarily overwhelmed, he offered her a glassy beam and quickly sat down.
With a snort Miss Brunner straightened her skirt, picked up her lightweight AR-15 Desert Enforcer and stiffly left the bunker. Sometimes she found modernity entirely lacking in charm.
Outside, Major Nye had the snowmobile running. “Where to, old girl?”
“Vienna,” she said. “But you’d better stop off at the Monoprix on the way.
Whistling, he took a left into Boulevard Raspail.
The .41 Magnum Story
“Things don’t always fall apart, do they?” Mitzi Beesley chewed the nail of her left index finger, her forehead creased. “Do they?”
“Only eventually.” Her father sat in the Blackhawk’s back seats tickling a rescued Bounty with a liberally coated tongue. “Oh, God! You forget. Sometimes things come together. That surely is one of the fundamentals. Gravity and so on. Gravity! Good old gravity! Proof enough, surely, of a Creator’s presence?”
Major Nye looked back from the driving seat. He wore a smart summer uniform. Captured from the Libyans its insignia had been removed and replaced with British rank and name flashes. The object of most clashes with the Libyans was to get hold of those cool uniforms. They were so much more stylish and of far better quality than most others. The Americans had the cloth but lacked the style.
“Am I blue? You’d be too. If each plan with your man done fell through.” Major Nye hummed the tune as he spun the wheel and turned the jeep towards Florence. “How are things at the Vatican?”
“Well.” Beesley felt about in his briefcase for a spare Mars bar. “We’re not exactly reconciled but it won’t be long now. There’s some chance, I hear, that I’ll be a Monsignor before the year’s out.”
“I thought you were C of E, old boy.”
“Oh, I was, dear chap. But this was a case of conscience, naturally. I mean, I’m far closer to Rome than I used to be, what with one thing and another.”
“Chaps marrying chaps, of course. Going a bit far, what?”
“Oh, I’m not the judgemental type.” Thoughtfully, the bishop unwrapped his Mars.
“You’re a better Christian than that, Daddy.” Mitzi reached to wipe a trickle of chocolate from his quaking jowls. “You’re so forgiving.”
“Was a time I was the only one,” observed Major Nye, enjoying the landscape ahead. “But now I’m the sad and lonely one. Lordy! Was I gay, till today? Now he’s gone and we’re through. Yes, I’m blue. I must say, old boy, this new chap seems a rather decent egg, what?”
But the bishop’s mitred head had dropped into his daughter’s lap. Together they rose and fell as if on a gentle tide.
Jerry’s hair had curled and turned auburn overnight. He looked like an overgrown Swinburne. Behind him stood a big Remington 60/40 guaranteed to shake the life out of anything he aimed it at. “So who has the potatoes?” This famine was now in its finality.
“You have the option,” Miss Brunner said. “Or rather they do. Nine times out of ten they take offence, fighting me east, west and sideways. As we used to find in Moldovskaya. Jerry, you can’t —”
“I can a bit.” He wondered if that big tin of Cornish clotted cream would last until teatime. He didn’t like the way Bishop Beesley was looking at it. That stuff had cost more than the wedding cake. “After all, it’s my big day.”
“It’s your bloody big day every six months or so.” She twisted her mouth. “Isn’t it?”
“That’s just how you see it. If it was up to my mum it would be twice a week.”
“If —” But she stopped herself. For all she knew old Mrs C. was sneaking around behind the altar. There was no point in starting something she couldn’t finish. “How’s the baby?”
“Bigger than ever.” He lit a Sherman’s. He checked his watches. He turned up the collar of his black car coat. The prospectors approached the table. Miss B. checked them out.
“Any luck, boys?”
The Arab spoke first from behind his veil. “They found some fresh up on the Lost and Found.” His tone was almost accusatory.
“Not much of a lode.” Shakey Mo sounded as if he didn’t really believe it or want to. “They started fighting over it. I thought I’d wait for that to die down before I went to check it out, Jerry. No colour’s been seen up there in five years, let alone weeks.”
Jerry lit a fresh spliff. “So you’ll go to the end of the line?”
“Get a stage from Brixton. Or a mule.”
“Want company?” asked Jerry.
“Sure,” he said. “We’ll follow the Wandle until it rejoins the Little Mud. Follow that as far as the Big.”
“Still flowing backwards?”
“We sailed and we rowed as far as Vicksburg then bought a passage on theJolie Yvonne bound for Galveston. But we’ll take the Pierre Tubb next time, hug the coast to Biloxi and from there to New Orleans. With a little bit of luck we’ll win more back at the Terminal.”
“I love to hear you boys talking.” Miss Brunner took a glass of black absinthe from a passing tray. She frowned. She was sure she’d seen the steward somewhere before. “I’m rather tired of Texas myself.”
Nobody took the hint.
“My story is not unusual, gentlemen.” Monsieur Pardon examined the Romeo y Julieta. The cigar had become a bit of a status symbol in Gambon where a single stogie cost the wages of a working man. He had used the bulk of his supply to buy himself rights to all the potential colour fields in the southern half of the country. He had resold these in lots to make himself a zloty millionaire when the yen was falling and the zloty was the only currency Europeans and Asians would accept. Some nifty financial footwork had turned the zloty into pounds at the right moment and given M. Pardon Conway Castle which he had reinforced for his private use.
“True.” Jerry slotted his new 3D Browning together. The Pippa series remained the most reliable so far. Still not worth the price of the copier, but good enough for jazz. “Are you ready for this?”
“Mayhem? Mr Cornelius, you don’t know how bored I am with the quiet life. I have developed in recent years an almost intolerable urge to kill my neighbours. Is that natural?”
Jerry adjusted his cuffs, his collar, his perfect linen. “We had probably better get going. Are you feeling better now?”
“I did not mellow with age at all, m’sieur. The older I grew, the angrier I became. Remembered insults, infidelities of spouses, bad reviews, all grew in my memory until they represented monstrous crimes against my humility.” M. Pardon contemplated the players bent over their clacking steel balls. “How we yearn for harmony. And justice. How hard it is to achieve.”
Jerry did his best to agree.
Mo Collier wondered if he would ever get back to Arizona. He missed his Apache mates. “There’s a cave system down there,” he told Major Nye. “Inhabited by some kind of troglodyte. You know, cave people. The locals call them Al Momini. They say they’re from Mars — what they call Vahsoum. I don’t know if there’s a translation.”
“We are scholars. We study our worlds and yours.” The man in sunglasses made a polite movement with his right hand.
Apologetically, Jerry stepped casually from one universe into another. It was, he noticed, almost identical. “It takes a lot of sidestepping not to allow for that.” His voice echoed slightly, perhaps through the Arizona hills.
Bishop Beesley had no real difficulty following him. Expertly he peeled a Twix. “And who is to say we are not living in one of those multiversal planes where Jehovah exists or where a Christian Heaven awaits the good and Hell awaits the sinner?”
“If we’re living in Heaven,” said Mo, taking his little finger to a speck of grit on his AK-47, “where are we bound next?”
“The wisdom of one universe,” said Bishop Beesley wiping his pale chins, “is the nonsense of another.”
Major Nye calmed his moustache with the back of his hand. Mildly, he looked from one to another. “I’ve got the old lorry outside. The sand’s died down. Anyone feel like a trip to Bexhill?”
Bishop Beesley held up a grateful finger. He stooped to pick up his carpet bag. “With all our humanity and liberal humanism, Mr Cornelius, we’ve scarcely improved a single word.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t try so hard,” said Jerry.
“You can say that again.” Mo put his rifle into its canvas case.
“We will, Moses. We will.”
“Every little picture has a story of its own. Every little picture tells a tale.”
Major Nye ran a fond finger over dusty blue and gold spines. “I’m sure it was a Macmillan illustrated classic. Here we are. I must say you have a wonderful book department. They say it’s better than Knightsbridge’s. But, of course, you have Spanish, too.”
M. Pardon was gracious. “So we’re told, sir. Will Snarleyowl be all?”
“Unless you have My Struggle.”
“Reprinting. We sold out the day Mr Hitler and his socialists were elected. People are curious. Do you know much, sir?”
Major Nye couldn’t say. “I suppose you don’t have a copy of The Jew’s Bargain? Second-hand would do.”
“I doubt you’ll find one in all Buenos Aires. Not now.”
The major nodded. “What number tram do I take to the Agriculture Ministry?”
M. Pardon brightened. “Now there I can help you, Major Nye.”
They found Jerry cutting cane in the Brazilian back country, cleaned him up and gave him a pair of boots.
“Don’t worry.” Una Persson dusted off her long navy-blue military coat. “He’ll be his old self in no time. Look, he’s found a copy of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He’s going to make it!”
But Jerry, mumbling cross-legged on the polished boards of the library floor, quietly discarded the book for a copy of Coarse, the suppressed sequel to The Compleat Angler. He began looking for something in the pockets of his black car coat. “Rod?”
“We’d better be off.” Mrs P. adjusted her cuffs. “Once he finds the Doré Milton we’ll never get him out of here.” With her slender fingers she tucked stray hair under her beret. “One word’s worth a thousand pictures.”
“Only in politics.” Reluctantly, M. Pardon issued an echo of a smile. “Will you do me the courtesy to let me die alone?”
As I left I thought I saw him smile.
“I have lived for this. No more narratives. No more.” Jerry would never know if all the stories were true. More pain? Who knew?”
“This isn’t the Balkans, Mr Cornelius. The tears are already cold.”
She flashed that half-mocking crooked grin designed eventually to secure his heart. But it was early days yet. She was merely skirmishing, testing for his weaknesses. He found himself grinning with pleasure. Open warfare had always been his preference.
There were no simple questions. Only simple answers. Was this really the abyss at last?
He picked up his mandolin. Since his operations he had been able to play simple progressions. Was it better than nothing? Only his sister could tell him. And, as Mrs Persson knew, Catherine was still in Buenos Aires.
The green Lagonda muttered smoothly away from the kerb. Catherine was steering. “So we’re on the road again.” She turned the volume up a taste. Willie Nelson hadn’t sounded so happy in years.
“I suppose you’re blaming me for all this.” Miss Brunner busied herself in her handbag. “Believe me, Miss Cornelius, I had no intention...”
“I think we all understand that, darling.” Catherine checked her compass. “How does Fleet Street suit you?”
Miss Brunner grinned in relief. “What’s the Light Brigade charge, these days?” At last she was beginning to enjoy herself. “So whose round is it for the aeroplanes?”
In the back seat Jerry woke up. “Could we have the window closed, do you think?” He looked with vague pleasure at the autumn chestnuts, brown gold in the ancient sunlight. Long ago, probably, he had come here with his children to think.
At least, he thought they were his.
He made no effort to stop the image of Mrs Bott coming into his head. She wasn’t really much of a nemesis.
Sensing some discomfort, Catherine reached back a gloved hand to comfort him. “You okay?”
He was grateful for the attention. “Are we there yet?”
“Ozesque, nicht war?” Miss Brunner took her wary eyes off the road. Within seconds she was asleep again. Jerry was getting tired of nudging her every time they saw something she’d like.
The radio was no help, of course. Out here in the woods all you got was God and constant country smells. “I’ve had an idea,” he said. “I knew we should have got the de luxe model.”
“What sort of idea?” Miss Brunner frowned and blinked. “These new Tudor houses look nice. A proper village.” She checked her brochure. “Who’s the architect?”
“I’m not sure there is one,” said Jerry. “It’s five thousand furnished.”
“I’ll have it,” she said. “If they’ll throw in some plumbing.”
“Are you sure you want to live in Shirley?”
Catherine took a hand off the wheel.
“Sorry,” she said. “Force of habit.”
Jerry was growing too used to the lows. Sooner or later he knew he would crack. Everyone else did it, these days. He stepped from the spreading shadow of the cedar and climbed in to his disgustingly styled Roller. Life wasn’t improving for him just then.
He was reluctant to take the pedestrian paths, no matter how picturesque. He swung the car onto the grass. She took smoothly to the lawn as deckchairs scattered. Anyone who cared, he thought, would recognise his boredom. He braked to avoid a crook with an ice-cream van. Mr Whippys were flying everywhere.
“Tra la la,” sang ‘Flash’ Gordon Giles from within his filthy mac, peering into a shadow. “That was a Watkins’s Cedar you almost hit, Mr C.”
Somewhere a grackle began its cackling crescendo echoed by a nearby woman with earrings large enough for the bird to perch on. Jerry decided driving was no longer on for the day.
The Luxor, restored at last, stood splendid amongst the shifting shadows of the Hausmanesque Boulevard Magenta. The Gaucho, with Douglas Fairbanks, was playing in the late-night Silent Classics season. Jerry could remember a time when it was much easier to hear the Wurlitzer. The cinema was swaggering, Egyptianate, with all the confidence of that Depression era which didn’t know it was depressed. He stepped out of his panda-skin coat. What had possessed him to revisit that appalling period of his youth? Hadn’t he realised what high heels did to your calves? With a certain reluctance he stepped into the cinema foyer where his mum was now in charge of tickets. “Two for tonight, please, Mum. I’ll owe you, all right?”
“Orl right if yer like. Bleedin’ little pikey.”
“Not me, Mum. I was never the Egyptian baby.”
“Na. I remember.” She slipped him the tickets. “Yore the kikey’s, right?”
Jerry stepped through the doors into a cooling present. It was a relief just to have a few minutes between programmes. “What’s the time?” He checked his mobiles. “The clocks have stopped.” He turned up the collar of his black car coat. Catherine was late as usual.
She hurried through and came to a sudden halt. “You were going to be dead, weren’t you?”
“You get a better signal from the cemetery.”
“Oh, fuck. Now we’re sunk.”
He stooped and kissed her hand.
She thought that one over.
The next time Jerry met M. Pardon was in Cannes during the 1950 season. They were both playing ‘bloacks’ and doing well.
“My luck doesn’t generally run this long,” said M. Pardon when they had cashed their chips and stood on the verandah smoking Upmanns. Jerry was casually comfortable in his evening clothes but M. Pardon seemed a little ill at ease. He gave the impression of a butler posing as his master. As it was, M. Pardon, pudgy, perhaps a little shifty, was one of the wealthiest publishers in the south and had recently bought the Teddy Bear, the steam yacht seen at her moorings directly ahead of them, from Cornelius the Elder’s bankrupt estate. “I suppose you don’t want to look over the old girl again? We’re off to Andratx in the morning.”
Jerry declined. He didn’t much care what happened to the yacht. He had his eye on an aerial schooner being built in the Zeppelin yards near Hamburg. The future, he felt, was in the air.
Una Persson, in a wealth of Liberty silk, found them and held out a Balkan Sobranie in a jade holder to be lit. M. Pardon obliged.
“You had luck tonight! Sadly, I was roundly beaten.”
That was when Jerry understood her to be making a play for Pardon. He bowed and stepped to the parapet. “Full moon tonight by the look of it.”
The French windows opened again. Major Nye, stiffly at ease with the evening, carried his snifter of Hine into the shaft of light he’d created. “Hope I’m not disturbing anyone. I just slipped out to lick my wounds. Evening, Cornelius. Not one of your heads, I hope.”
“Absolutely ace, thanks, major. Yourself?”
“Top hole, thanks for asking. But between you and me the games these days are a little warm for my taste. Should have had my leave in Kent with the mem sahib.”
Jerry knew Major Nye too well to suspect melodrama. He was too honourable to put his wife and girls at risk.
“Care for a peg, Cornelius?”
Again Jerry declined. Only then did the old soldier realise Mrs Persson stood there in the thick, velvety night.
“Beg pardon, m’dear. Tremendous night, what?”
“They heard music faint against the surf.”
“I think that’s coming off The Panda.”
“Is that what the buggers are calling the old T.B.?” Major Nye lost interest. “Tremendous night, what?”
“Tremendous. Oui,” said M’sieu P.
Major Nye lost interest in the subject before he could offer further offence.
Jerry began to cheer up at last.
Follies of Fifty Years was playing at the White Horse in the Haymarket. Musicals were very popular today. Major Nye was in his element. Every moment of his spare time was spent at a theatre. He went in and out with no shame. His eldest daughter had a small part in Polly’s Hippo, rehearsing for Christmas. Reactionary sci-fi was back in fashion again.
“We’re here to celebrate fifty years since the closing of the old order,” said Emma, pushing back a lock of dyed red hair. “We are not here to make a public joke of an old man. However...”
“Sir, I have conversed with angels,” began the ancient star. He held up his book. “I have the notes. The notes!”
“Oh, that’s so fucking typical!”
No-one knew where that had come from. Few cared. Or tasted. He cast around for the girl. “Don’t think I’m ignoring this, missy.”
“Missy Emma. What? I’m attempting somehow to —”
“Then why —?”
“Somehow, I will.”
“I’m so fucking tired. I really am.”
“So you say. What came out of all that?”
“Not much. Not much worth the effort.”
Jerry bit his lip. Or was it Emma’s? Or was he just hungry?”
Brother Death. A novel by John Lodwick.
“The book had a profound influence on me as a young man. It is currently being considered as a film by Johnny Depp, who will star in the central rôle.
“Is that true?” Mitzi looked back into her father’s blue, untranquil eyes. “I mean, is that true?”
“I can’t deprive my children of a father,” declared the faceless actor, casting around for his next rôle. “Is this fair or am I simply kidding myself?”
“You tell me.”
“Did I say killing myself?”
“I wish I could tell you.”
The bishop groaned. He had expected more sympathy. He had hoped for more enthusiasm. Wasn’t the book one of the best ever carried in a clergyman’s briefcase?
“I’m in moveable real estate.” Miss Brunner handed him a card. “Why not make the most of climate change? That’s our motto. Our units literally move with the times. The waters rise. The houses rise. The values rise. The waters subside, so does your residence. Only the value does not go down! If a tornado, say, comes through, it passes through the specially designed flow system. Too much heat, our polaroid solar roof cools while storing excess energy. Too cold? That energy heats your luxury residence. Each unit comes with its own geodesic hydroponic garden, making you completely self-sufficient, independent of the ups and downs of food and energy supplies. Of course, the units are not inexpensive. We are forced to plan for a future in which not everyone is as fortunate as another. Adaptability, sadly, does come at a price. As it has always done. Which is why it’s so important to become rich today. The opportunity is unlikely to be here for ever. The future rewards the far-sighted. There will be, of course, a little bit of collateral damage.”
Smoothing her skirt under her perfect bottom, Miss Brunner presented her military man to the seminar.
General Pancreas, lean and fit to a fault, rose before the assembled prospects.
“Welcome, folks, to Operation Enduring Prosperity. Much as we would love to include every cab-driver or garbage operative in our coming communities, the fact is there will be no need for them in a fully automated utopian village, as those of us who have already experienced the New Netherlands have discovered to our advantage. Our friends, the folks at Ultradam, are totally comfortable living below sea level behind the very latest in dyke construction such as we now find all over the world, in Longer Island, Estuaria, Amazonium, Shanghai Flats, New Mombai and all the exquisite new waterfront properties where people have enthusiastically embraced climate change. Sadly, not every community has been so far-sighted, nor was it able to afford our innovative technologies. Personally I can only see this as their own failure to celebrate the new economic opportunities presented to them by the World Bank, the IMF and other institutions always ready to advise a methodology taking advantage of our changing planet.
“Which brings us to the next stage of what we like to call totally secure living. That is, protecting your property from the politics of envy.
“There have, as we all know, been a number of attacks on forward-thinking communities as far apart as the Malay Towers and Margate Mansions-in-the-Sky. Those who failed to provide for themselves and their families have attacked and sometimes severely damaged the properties of those whose hard work and foresight provided them with certain advantages.
“Nowadays, you folks can experience perfect tranquillity protecting your property from the class warriors and eco-terrorists. Drone Patrols, equipped with the very latest laser-guided remote-controlled Taser technology, can take out the terrorist wherever he raises his greedy little head. They soon see the point of returning to the Preservation Reservations a benign government has provided for them. We are not, naturally, without pity for the failed and financially inadequate but we do have the right to protect what God and our pecunity has provided for His people.”
General Pancreas saluted his audience and reseated himself as Miss Brunner led the applause. With benign pride she contemplated the promise of climate change providing so many opportunities for profit.
Arms raised, Bishop Beesley rose next to celebrate God’s promise of this new heaven on earth. Meanwhile, positioned in the hall’s high spots, Shakey Mo Collier prepared to discharge his hidden banks of V-weapons. Sometimes you couldn’t help being grateful for the simplifications of good old-fashioned deadly force.
As the audience clapped the hall began to shake. Soon everyone was shimmying to the buzz of the V-cannon.
Looking back as the speeding boat left the beach Mo sighed with pleasure. “Now that’s what I call good vibrations.”
Una Persson had her hands over her ears. She’d had enough of this particular future. She looked forward to the simplicities of a time when world wars came in single digits.
“Texas,” declared Major Nye to the bosun as the Green Queen docked in Galveston, “is finally herself again.”
Texas was where the past met the future coming back and nobody felt especially confused. Here, they understood the meaning of a perfect storm. The borderlands, the Dream Marches, where one multiverse passed into another and the stakes and the risks were as high as they’d ever be.
Leaning on his wheel, Captain Dack, the grizzled old skipper, took a pull off his battered briar.
“So what cargo are we taking on tonight, major? The usual?”
“I certainly hope so, skipper.”
“Wot’s effin’ wrong wiv ther bloody water?” Mrs Cornelius dipped her old bucket into the Lad Brook and began to drag back towards Blenheim Crescent, her wellies sloshing rhythmically. “Look at that lovely sunset,” she insisted. “Yer never saw nuffink like that when I woz a girl.”
Jerry was doing his best with the smell. Every basement in Notting Dale was filled with shit and a river flowed from Harrow Road to join the West Bourne at Colville Terrace, carrying a variety of rafts, canoes and modified boats as well as the police patrol vessels. By and large survivors had adapted pretty well to living in the moral low ground. Those on the high ground were making plans to remodel Watertown as a larger Little Venice.
Miss Brunner was conducting a survey from the wall of the old convent. She spotted them as they reached the floor of Blenheim Crescent still above water. “Really, Mrs Cornelius, you must rethink. You are a slave to this dreadful sentimentality. Change means opportunity. Just because Notting Dale was always famous for its smells doesn’t mean you can go on. You can’t raise pigs without swill.”
Even Jerry was puzzled by her last remark. It sounded insulting. He was doing all he could to control himself but at some point he was going to start cracking all over again. And when you cracked, these days, you really cracked. There would be no going back. No going forward, for that matter. Yet he wasn’t sure going forward was still an option.
“We might,” he said to his mum, “be in a bit of a pickle.”
He remained unhappy about the Golden Hind. There were almost no decent chippies left in London, these days. He paddled up to the few steps to his mum’s flat still above water. He looked back. She was right about the sunset.
Jerry could hear the trucks again. They were almost in Damascus. The wind blew thick oily smoke like a curtain across the silhouetted ruins. The city had come a long way from her former prosperity. Jerry closed his eyes and turned to Mo beside him in the cab. Mo was sleeping, his big gun cradled in his camouflaged arms. Jerry opened his mouth.
“Any news?” Mitzi Beesley bent to adjust the ruffles on her polka-dot ra-ra. Her long, pale legs had caught the sun, particularly on their calves. They matched her lipstick almost perfectly. She still couldn’t work out why she’d been banned from the Pope’s funeral but she wasn’t one to brood. She knew the opportunity for revenge was bound to present itself. She inspected the miniature perfumes she’d found, abandoned by one of the old man’s favourites. She dabbed a little Mitsouko behind her ears. She sighed. She began to feel herself again.
“Only the usual.” Suddenly, as the wind turned, they were hit by a monstrous wave of patchouli. Another barrel had fallen off the back of a lorry.
“So would you call that a normal event?” Miss Brunner, her lips pursed, hobbled along the last decent bit of promenade remaining as they found themselves unexpectedly in Upper Marylebone Lane. “I knew I should have stayed in Split. Oh, damn! Look what’s happened to the Golden Hind.”
“That’s a shame,” said Mo Collier. “They did the best haddock between Harringay and Hove.” He moved awkwardly, avoiding eye contact with everyone. He got into the Roller. “Anyone need a lift through Streatham?”
“Not any more.”
“Choo, choo, choo!” Mitzi Beesley put out her little pink tongue to lick her vanilla lips. She loved an ice and Blackpool was the best place to enjoy one. Somehow the tower made all the difference, especially now that it had that moat.
Miss Brunner wished there was some other way of crossing from North to South but these days only the trams remained neutral. The city had been at war for decades. Anyone caught in the crossfire deserved what they got.
Una Persson was not enjoying the company but she couldn’t easily choose her allies at the moment. Too many unexpected quakes. Too much sudden water. She handed the S&W .45 Magnum to Mitzi who strapped it around the waist of her polka-dot ballerina skirt and adjusted her bolero jacket to hide it. Mitzi had every chance of crossing the divide and rejoining her father’s forces. She remained suspicious of Miss Brunner’s motives however. Mitzi knew what a snob the programmer could be. Why had she even bothered to visit the funfair?
Una glanced out across the frowning brown water and held her nose. There was no doubt the sea had risen significantly in the past hour or two. The tide was coming in at last and it looked like it meant to stay.
“The thing I love about New Yorkers is their entrenched provincialism.” Una Persson blew a kiss to Manhattan, swallowed up in fog. Then she settled back in her air car and let the WiFi do the driving. Sometimes, she had to admit, the future was very relaxing. Of course, you didn’t always get what you wanted, but it could prove interesting, anyway. She dreamed of the old days in Beirut, when they had so much fun demolishing those big hotels, the Holiday Inn, the Hilton and the Embassy Suites, until there was rubble on a Berlin or Baghdad scale. Berlin, of course, was still the gold standard.
The unimaginable was always fascinating. These days the jury was out on what had been impossible to believe five years earlier. We had been lotus-eaters, of course, but we were paying for the lotuses on credit and now nobody had that kind of money. Only Heidi von Krist and she was getting far too choosy. Una turned the pages of Time and Elle. Wasn’t it strange how unimportant the stock market seemed after it was discovered that popular sentiment actually had understood the world economy better than the experts.
The car turned gracefully towards Ireland. Jerry had been especially excited about it.
“Now that’s a country worth owning. Do you read Yeats, at all?”
“I prefer him in French.” M. Pardon turned apologetically. “Isn’t that terrible?” He removed his hat. His forehead was scarlet with sweat. And he began to speak in that flat declamatory style he imagined they used around 1900 when the first recordings had been cut. Una listened for several minutes before she realised he was performing The Ruined Maid.
“But that’s Thomas Hardy!”
“This is no time to split hairs, Mrs. Persson.” He adjusted his hat and turned his back.
“How can you put on an exhibition of 1860s style without showing any Eastlake?” demanded Catherine Cornelius, reflexively cleaning her .45. “Is that a Browning?”
“No, it’s a Rossetti.” Her friend sighed before a roaring fire. Against the walls of the rooms were dozens of Pre-Raphaelites from Hunt to Millais. The argument over the firelight was threatening to tear old friends apart. As she knew to her cost.
She looked out of the window at the gloomy beach, noting pensively how the moonlight was reflected off the porcelain on the big pipe which took the industrial waste directly to where it could do the most good. “The quality of his paint, you know.”
“His pain? Are you still into that?”
“Did I say so?” Una was hurt. She wondered why only Catherine could do that to her. “But if you want to believe…”
“I gave that up after Spinoza.”
Una found humour in this. “Go on like you are and you’ll stop taking the tablets altogether.”
“You’re totally in the 1940s, darling.” Cathy was angry. “All that stuff is so passé. It’s almost quaint.” She spoke urgently and she was frightened.
“Can a planet break up so easily? I had no idea.” Una gave her attention to the mirror. She thought she saw something moving behind the glass.
Jerry and the rest had reached Yorkshire at last. It had taken a lot of Bill Kirchen and Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen to do it but here they were after only ten replays of ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’. The grey slate roof of Tower House spiked out of the roiling mist offering a cold, familiar welcome. Wrapped and shivering they hobbled from the Lagonda to the front porch.
“Abart fuckin’ time yer got ’ere.” Mrs Cornelius opened the door. “I got ther bloody fire goin’. It’s fuckin’ freezin’ in ’ere.”
They trooped into the big kitchen with its great slate flagstones and Rayburn. Mrs C.’s washing was drying on the rack above the stove and the place smelled of soapy water, toasting crumpets and Darjeeling tea. Mo was already there, sitting at the long rectory table, butter and blackberry jam glinting in his moustache. “You bastards are too early. I was planning to eat your teacakes.” He moved his favourite AK-47, a beautiful handmade Afghan copy, so that Catherine could sit down between him and Una Persson. “Afternoon, ladies. Good to see you.”
Cathy leaned to kiss him, then hesitated. He wiped his moustache. “Blimey, darling, I never thought you’d mind the taste of a bit of blackberry jam.” But he got one on his forehead anyway.
Miss Brunner took a chair at the end of the table, nearest the stove. Fastidiously she smoothed her skirt and carefully sat down. Mrs Cornelius put a china cup ostentatiously before her. “There ya go, yer ’ighness.”
Finding a place next to his soulmate, Bishop Beesley removed his mitre and placed it before him above his plate. His fat little hands flashed towards a crumpet, had buttered it and piled it high with jam in an instant. Mitzi indicated his tall hat. “Didn’t you bring the case for that, Daddy?”
“It’s in the car, sweet. Under the rest of the luggage. I’ll fetch it as soon as I’ve had my tea. I’m famished.”
“Orl right. Yer better spill it now.” Mrs C. drew her mighty brows together in a frown. “’Ow long yer plannin’ to stay then?”
“Just until after the apocalypse, dear lady.”
“That’ll be Tuesday. I need ter know ’ow much jam ter stock up.”
Heedless of the hint he piled another helping of jam onto his crumpet.
Jerry drew the eyeliner gently across his lids and pursed his lips. These days his use of cosmetics was more conservative. He remembered some bad moments at Lord’s or the Oval, in Stratford and Pennsylvania. Why cricket had died out in most of America and been replaced by baseball remained a mystery to him. At the moment, they seemed to be coming together again. For a while he had almost lost faith in his sister. The unreliability of her predictions was now a watchword and she was attacked on all sides by their imploring wretched voices. They wanted her back, the old Catherine, confident and exact. But she had come to believe herself as useless as they thought. She wasn’t here to scupper the exhibition. Jerry had wanted a scarlet city and that was what he got, she supposed. She was disappointed. This wasn’t the time travel she’d been expecting. This was mere restoration. You went from system to system. Carlisle would have been a good subject. Where had she got that Whistler? By the look of the frame and its condition, she thought, the painting was out of his symbolist phase. Idly, she wrote in the dust of the dormitory. A nursery rhyme they had shared:
Big Frog hopped her way to hell
And crawled out on her belly
Big Frog hatched her spawn right well,
Then hid them in your welly!
He had never been able to put on a wellington boot without a slight shudder. Condoms had the same effect. He despised these modern phobias. If his father hadn’t described it as the act of pulling on a wellington boot, he might never have conceived his little boy. His conscience was up to its old game. It was time he got back to Delhi.
“How was she?”
Moll Midnight stood against the door, arms folded, eyes accusatory. She had wound herself up.
Jerry shrugged. “Pretty good.” His answer was calculated. He knew how delicious make-up sex with Moll was. He felt a warm glow in his groin as she launched herself at him, spitting,
“This is the life!”
Jerry found Mo Collier in the Kayumar Gardens in South Tehran. He was strung out on black crack and didn’t recognise his old partner.
“How you doing, Mo?”
“I told you. That methadone programme wasn’t for me. I got addicted. Fucking BG-41s. You never could rely on them. Eh? You never could rely on them.” He thumbed a huge lighter and, after glancing around at the deep green cedars and firs, concentrated on taking the flame to the pipe. “Who thinks they can buy old Mo with an out-of-date semi-automatic and a bag of geed-up opium.”
“What happened to your Banning?”
“Swapped it, didn’t I?”
Jerry knew what Mo had swapped it for. “You still got that Qur’an I gave you?”
The first hit had discharged. “It’s like Time’s rays pounding against your body. What Qur’an?” He was easing back down again almost at once. “Yeah, I got it somewhere.”
Jerry looked around the park. The only other people there were crackheads. According to law, the women wore full chador. “What? Here?”
“In the hostel. No. On the trolley-bus. Number 9. Try the lost-property office.”
“I remember you,” said Mo. “Oh, shit.”
Mo’s excuses always embarrassed Jerry.
“Come on.” He pulled on his soft, black gloves. “I’ve got a job for you. And a gun.”
Una Persson eased the little Sopwith Gull down into the gentle water of Torbay. Even from here she could smell Torquay’s distinctive whitewash. After she had cut the seaplane’s engine she turned to the passenger in the seat behind her and clarified her plans. “We’ll anchor near the point.” She used her big Zimmer bins to scan the coast, smiling as she recognised some of the faces. “It’s a shame to startle them. I have my car up there.”
“You didn’t want to come in closer?”
“I wanted them to be watching the water.”
Catherine Cornelius widened her pretty blue eyes. “You think of everything.”
“If only,” said Una.
They tore off their helmets and shook out their hair. Two schoolgirls on a jape.
Una swung a long leg out of the cockpit and onto the float. Standing there, she leaned and inflated the yellow life raft.
Within a minute or two they were paddling for the point.
“Are you sure there’s not a big wave coming?” Catherine looked back over her shoulder. No storm seemed to be catching up with them. She continued to paddle with expert fury.
London’s first real earthquake had, as predicted, quartered Ladbroke Grove from North to South and East to West and it had already filled with flood water. This made for an altogether prettier landscape. The big blocks of council flats had their own marina with palms and small skiffs. The council had already created a couple of nice boating lakes for the better-class children. Jerry had never lost faith in the powerful will of the proletariat once it could be engaged. Most of the low-lying terraces, originally occupied by TV producers, politicians and advertising agents, were crumbling but somehow parts of Blenheim Crescent and the Convent of the Poor Clares had been restored.
“That was the main reason I always hated you.” Miss Brunner stood on the edge of the lake looking towards Wormwood Scrubs. She had gone back into teaching and was not at all pleased. “Your bloody luck.”
“There’s no such thing as luck,” said Jerry, putting away his fishing gear. “It’s a question of how you dodge about in an imperfect multiverse.”
Mo thought it was a fart. “Tut tut. Pardon,” he admonished. He started the outboard. “You’re going to have to remember your manners, Miss B. People round here will take offence. You might want to set an example in your line of work.”
The surface was showing distinct signs of crazing. Jerry had grown used to the comfortable rhythmic trembling of the L.A. freeways. He wasn’t sure what to do in Lancashire. Catherine beside him in the car studied the maps trying to get a fix. “We must have been here since the beginning.”
“I can’t remember a thing. Are those faces?”
“No. It’s just someone’s rod.”
“I saw a giant the other day. He came out of the sea. I meant to tell you. He left oily footprints all over the shingle at Morecambe. Then he stepped back into the water. The Bore tore him apart.”
“Those tides can be very dangerous. Remember what happened to Karen von Krupp.”
“Yes, but she was a dentist.”
Sometimes, she thought, Jerry could be very thick.
“Don’t worry.” Her brother set his black-gloved fingers lightly to the Lagonda’s wheel. “The faces are only one person. Sooner or later they merge.”
He turned the car into the Morecambe backstreets, heading for Lancaster. Three storeys, red brick, ravaged paint and signboard after signboard. Vacancy upon vacancy. Behind them the sun began to set into shimmering oil as the planet’s lifeblood was pumped by its slowly beating heart.
“I love you, Jerry.” Her hand stroked his shoulder.
“Me, too.” Soon he had put them between the city and the view.