Marcher the authors pref.., p.1

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Marcher: The Author's Preferred Text
 


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Marcher: The Author's Preferred Text


  Marcher

  Chris Beckett

  NewCon Press

  England

  First edition of the author’s preferred text, published August 2014

  by NewCon Press

  Marcher copyright © by Chris Beckett

  Marcher originally appeared in the USA in significantly different form via Cosmos, 2009.

  All rights reserved, including the right to produce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

  Also available as:

  ISBN: 978-1-907069-71-0 (hardback)

  978-1-900679-72-7 (softback)

  Cover art by Ben Baldwin

  Cover layout and design by Andy Bigwood

  Minor Editorial meddling by Ian Whates

  eBook design by Tim C Taylor

  Text layout by Storm Constantine

  Chapter 1

  Nature is profligate. All possible worlds exist. And in one of them at least, on a damp Saturday evening in early October, in the year 2005, and in the city known in countless billions of universes as Bristol, a woman called Susan Fletcher celebrated her thirtieth birthday. Charles had brought her a mirror, a round and slightly convex one with a simple white frame. Mirrors were his speciality, his trademark, one of the things that Susan would undoubtedly associate with him. He’d brought it round earlier in his car and she’d already hung it on her living room wall.

  Now, on all of its three storeys, Susan’s narrow terraced house was humming with that strange, steady, even sound that a human crowd makes. There was wine, beer and cider in the kitchen and dancing in the back room to decade-old music from bands that Susan and Charles and their contemporaries had listened to in the days when they did not spend their time in offices: The Locus of Control, The Identity, The Social Order. This would always be the music of their generation, and with each new decade they would play it defiantly again, as if to protect themselves from growing old.

  In the spare bedroom on the first floor a group of young men were gathered around a TV. They were all plugged into a device called a dreamer, very popular in that world though unknown in this, and were playing the classic dreamer game called Ripper Killer. They had on 3D goggles and wore things called moodpads on their heads which gave low-voltage jolts to the hypothalamus in order to induce elation, longing or (as was famously the case with Ripper Killer) terror. The young men flinched as Charles’ shadow passed across the open doorway.

  There were a man and a woman in the main bedroom. They were not having sex as they might have been a decade ago, but bickering as they rummaged for their things in a pile of coats. A tearful babysitter had phoned them to say she couldn’t cope.

  ‘I knew we shouldn’t have come, David. Why didn’t you listen? She’s too little. She just isn’t ready.’

  Charles prepared his face for a moment of recognition. He knew them both. He had spent many evenings with one or the other of them in various pubs in Clifton. He could even remember one drunken night when Tanya had asked him to go to bed with her. But they were too stressed to even register his presence.

  ~*~

  Charles had assumed that more of his and Susan’s old university friends would be at the party, but, apart from David, Tanya and himself, all the guests seemed to come from a later stage in Susan’s life. I shouldn’t have come, he thought, as he made his way back down the stairs. He hadn’t seen Susan for several years, hadn’t spent much time with anyone socially for several years, and he probably wouldn’t have been invited at all if he hadn’t happened to run into her in the street. Now that he’d turned up, he felt it would be rude to leave so early, but he wished he’d stayed at home. He’d been working so hard lately. He could have done with an early night.

  Like all the other rooms the kitchen was full of strangers chattering away animatedly with other strangers they seemed to know very well. He should make an effort anyway and strike up a conversation, Charles told himself. He’d become very isolated lately, working the long hours that he did. But seeing the back door open, he persuaded himself that he should first go outside for a little cool air and a nourishing draft of solitude.

  Like many Bristol people, Susan barely possessed a back garden, just a small square of paving slabs with a few shrubs and herbs in pots, and it was on a steep hillside. Beneath him the great basin of the city was laid out, its towers and spires, its countless electric lights shining softly through a gentle misty rain.

  Suddenly Charles smiled, and it felt to him that the night smiled back, sharing a secret that very few people understood. This whole panorama with its hundreds of thousands of human inhabitants, its thousands of buildings, its millions of tons of brick and stone, its motorways snaking away across the land to London and Birmingham and Wales and Devon: all this – all of it – was really only the thinnest and most tenuous of skins.

  ‘Endless worlds,’ Charles murmured.

  Would this occur even once to anyone else at the party, he wondered? From eight o’clock in the evening when the first guests arrived, to two-thirty in the morning when the final guest got the hint at last and staggered home, would even a single person give it so much as a single moment’s thought?

  ~*~

  ‘Hello!’ said a voice.

  Charles started slightly. There was a woman standing against the back wall of the house, rolling up a cigarette.

  ‘Hi!’ he said, hoping she hadn’t heard him muttering to himself. ‘Sorry. I didn’t see you there.’

  She offered him her tobacco tin. He declined. She had a lively, intelligent face, with rather full lips and hair done up with ribbons in dozens of tight little plaits. She was quite fair-skinned herself, but he guessed she had a grandparent or great-grandparent who was black.

  ‘Just came out for a bit of air,’ he told her. ‘My name’s Charles Bowen. I know Susan from university days.’

  She told him her name. It was an unusual one – he would have had to have it spelled out for him to be able to properly get it – and, what with the business of trying to think of something to say next, he forgot it straight away.

  ‘You were the one who gave Susan a mirror, weren’t you?’ she asked.

  ‘Yes. How did you know that?’

  ‘I noticed you inside earlier and asked Susan who you were. She told me you collect mirrors. You looked like you didn’t know many of the people here.’

  ‘No I don’t. Ten years ago I would have known most of Susan’s friends, but we’ve gone off in different directions, socially and workwise and…’

  ‘Why? What sort of work do you do?’

  Charles hesitated. A few times he’d tried saying he was a civil servant in the hope that this would sound too dull to be worth pursuing further. But it didn’t work. The very dullness of it meant that people invariably asked for more details, just to have something they could remark upon.

  ‘Actually I’m an immigration officer.’

  He hated telling people this. Liberal or leftish folk, a category which he guessed encompassed most of Susan’s friends, almost invariably became several degrees cooler and even occasionally turned downright hostile. In other circles he sometimes met a greedy, racist enthusiasm which was even more unwelcome. But the young woman here was busy relighting her cigarette and didn’t immediately react.

  ‘Not quite what you were expecting, I should imagine,’ he added, noticing, to his annoyance, an unpleasantly defensive edge to his voice which could almost be described as a whine.

  She exhaled smoke.

  ‘An immigration officer?’ she said, and then laughed. ‘Well, that is different. That is refreshingly different from 99% of the people here. I just spent half an hour in there trying to look interested in the concept of anti-opp
ressive librarianship! And then I had a bloke going on about person-centred urban renewal. But an immigration officer, that is interesting. Why on Earth, out of all the jobs in the world, did you choose to do that?’

  ‘Here we go!’ he said, trying to cover up his defensiveness with a jokey tone that didn’t come off. ‘I tell people what I do and they immediately ask me to defend myself.’

  She weighed this up for a moment.

  ‘I know what you mean. It’s a bit like that with my job too. But actually I wasn’t asking you to defend yourself. I’m just curious about why people do what they do. What was going through your mind when you decided to become an immigration officer?’

  Charles took a deep breath. In the midst of the human babble in the house behind them, The Identity struck up their nineties anthem ‘No Such Thing,’ with its famous cycle of jangling guitar chords which seemed to steadily descend but somehow came back, again and again, to the exact same place.

  ‘Well there’s a story behind it. But do you really want to know?’

  ‘Yes really.’

  ‘Well, okay, it was like this. During my third year as a student, I had an argument about immigration with a bloke I knew called Mickey, who was a revolutionary socialist and a sworn enemy of the System in all its forms. “We should abolish all restrictions on movements across frontiers,” he told me. “Why can’t people live wherever they want?”

  ‘I said, “But if there were no restrictions at all there would be a torrent of people from the poor countries of the world. Even now people cling underneath trains coming through the tunnels from Europe and hide in the backs of lorries. If there were no restrictions people would come much more quickly than our society would be able to absorb. Even now there are strains”.

  ‘Mickey just laughed and called me a racist. And suddenly – it felt like a revelation – I understood that people like him didn’t really want to engage with the difficult questions at all. His morality consisted of keeping his own hands clean, leaving the dirty work to others and then calling them names.’

  ‘Mmmm. Yes. I think I know what you mean.’

  ‘And I know it sounds strange but I decided right there that I wasn’t going to be like that. I would get my hands dirty and I’d become an immigration officer myself. I don’t think I’m a racist and I’ve got every sympathy with people who want to come and live here. But a country does need a boundary of some sort. An entity of any kind needs a boundary, or it just melts into whatever surrounds it and ceases to be a thing in its own right at all. And if a country has a boundary, it means that some people who want to come in will have to be turned away. The rules can be changed, the way it’s done can be changed, but the unpleasant thing itself will still have to be done.’

  Charles smiled sourly.

  ‘Mickey ended up as a copywriter. A very successful one. I’ve heard he has a town house in London, an apartment in Manhattan and a villa in Tuscany. I wonder if he has locks on his doors, or whether people are allowed to walk in and out whenever they want.’

  The woman laughed.

  ‘That’s all very interesting, but to come back to my question, why did you become an immigration officer?’

  He was nonplussed. Had she not been listening? Had she not understood a word he’d said?

  ‘Sorry? What do you mean? I’ve just explained, haven’t I? People like Mickey say the service is full of racists and reactionaries. Well, unless liberal-minded people are prepared to take a share of the dirty work, it would be wouldn’t it?’

  She drew on the stub of her untidy little cigarette

  ‘You’ve explained why you thought you shouldn’t avoid the dirty work. And I understand that. In fact I agree with you. But you could equally well have been a policeman or a tax inspector, couldn’t you? You could have joined the prison service. You could have done all kinds of things. Why did you settle on guarding the frontiers?’

  Charles was bewildered. Yet at the same time he could dimly perceive that this was indeed a different question from the one he’d answered, and one that he’d never been asked before. He’d never even asked it of himself.

  ‘I think I see what you mean,’ he said cautiously.

  She laughed, a lovely laugh, not mocking his incomprehension but simply amused at their failure to understand each other. He laughed too, and at the same time he found himself noticing the woman, not in a sexual way particularly as far as he could tell, but just noticing her. She was interesting. She had an angle on things. And she was nice to look at too. He wished he’d got her name but it would be awkward asking now, when he’d pretended he’d heard it first time around. Susan could tell him later. That would be easier, and, anyway, right at that moment he was busy having a small revelation.

  ‘You know what,’ he said, ‘you’re quite right. I’m sure I must have had basically the same kind of argument with Mickey at various times about the police, the army – about any number of things – but I didn’t end up doing any of those jobs. So you’re right, there must have been something about this particular job that drew me, mustn’t there? Some particular thing. I wonder what it was? I’ve got no idea. Have you got any theories?’

  She laughed.

  ‘Well of course not! I don’t know you, do I? How could I possibly say?’

  ‘It’s just that you sounded as if you might have an idea.’

  She looked away from him for a moment, a little absent-minded movement that he suddenly found intensely graceful and sweet (so now he was aware of sex). Then she shrugged and turned back to him.

  ‘Well really, seriously, how could I know? But it’s something to do with boundaries isn’t it? Something that makes boundaries important for you.’

  Charles had thought they were just having a conversation, an ordinary get-to-know-you conversation like you were supposed to have at parties. But now, completely unexpectedly, he found himself in completely different territory. For he was badly shaken by what she’d said, badly enough for it to be obvious.

  ‘I… um… I’m not sure that…’

  ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I didn’t mean to…’

  ‘Don’t be silly,’ he said and promptly changed the subject, uttering some jagged banalities about turning thirty and how – help! – the next big leap after that would be forty and then they’d all be middle-aged. Then he mumbled something about finding a bit of food and hurried off, without the slightest idea what had unsettled him so much.

  ~*~

  He left the party soon after. He felt he had messed up one conversation and he wasn’t in the mood to start another. He walked the four miles home. Helicopters with spotlights circled as usual over the distant Zones. Groups of Saturday evening revellers passed by. An ambulance rushed whooping up Blackboy Hill.

  He walked through the streets of Redland. The solid bourgeois houses were mostly wrapped up for the night, their curtains drawn tightly closed with only a glow round the edges to suggest the life within, but here and there he caught glimpses of book-lined living rooms, or families gathered in the flickering light of TV, or solitary figures frowning at computer screens. Gusts of wind rustled the few remaining leaves on trees overhead, a light rain fell, water trickled into gutters.

  These were once open hills, Charles thought to himself as he came down from Redland onto the Gloucester Road. There would once have been a river running along here with rivulets and streams flowing down into it from the slopes on either side, where there were now just roads and houses.

  Then it struck him that of course the rain still fell, the water still had to go somewhere, and the rivers and streams must therefore still be there. It was just that they were hidden away now and people didn’t call them rivers any more but drains and sewers and conduits. He remembered reading that a really quite substantial river, the River Frome, was buried under the city centre and flowed in darkness beneath the busy streets.

  Presently he reached his front door, and climbed up the stairs to his austere little flat with its stripped floors and its
walls hung only with mirrors. He switched on the lights and shut the night outside, and all around him his many reflections did the same.

  He felt restless, agitated, as if something inside him was straining to get out.

  ~*~

  A cold wind blew past the tall concrete TV mast on Lockleaze Hill and something rattled half way up it, some loose piece of metal up there being shoved around in the darkness by the restless air. At the top of the tower, a red light blinked and blinked and blinked, and trees swayed and sighed under the rain. But there was no one present to see any of this, no one to hear it, no one to feel the cold. The material world was all on its own, like the rocks on the surface of Mars.

  And then suddenly four people were standing hand in hand beside the tower, blinking and gasping as if they’d emerged from under the sea, little droplets of sparkling light shimmering for a moment over their bodies and faces.

  One of the four retched. Another began to weep. Another whooped with glee.

  The city stretched out beneath them, and it was both familiar and completely new.

  ~*~

  In the grounds of a boarding school in Dorset, three boys huddled round a torch in a small earth cave under the roots of a tree. It was a place where they came to smoke things and dream and imagine themselves in a world apart from the great redbrick pile on the hill above them, with its lessons, its rules, its boringly bourgeois expectations. They longed to be different. Outside in the darkness below them, rain fell into a river.

  One of the boys opened a tobacco tin. In the torchlight its contents looked like half a dozen very small glass marbles.

  ‘Turn it off,’ instructed the boy who held the tin.

  At once the tobacco tin became a tiny shrine, the spheres inside shining softly in the darkness with a lovely pure blue light.

  ‘They breed, you know,’ said the boy with the tin.

  ‘What do you mean they breed?’ asked the one holding the torch.

  ‘Exactly what I said. There are six seeds now, but look in here tomorrow and there might be seven or eight.’

 
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