Way back in 1993, I wrote this piece of fiction as part of my novel, FREEZE FRAMES, originally published in 1995. It contains my vision of what might happen in a United States dominated by Christian Dominionists. Now, unfortunately, it seems relevant again, so I thought I’d put it up here.
One of the problems with writing science fiction these days is the speed at which technology changes. You’ll notice that no one in this story has a cell phone. There are other discrepancies, but I hope they don’t get in your way as you read.
‘I’ve always loved Britain so much,’ Janet says. ‘It’s going to be wonderful, this couple of weeks. I haven’t had a vacation in so long. Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday.’
Rosemary smiles. Ever since they met at Oxford, some forty years ago now, they’ve kept in touch across the Atlantic by phone calls and faxes, e-mail and bulletin boards, the occasional paper letter, the even rarer visit. They have shared their careers, their divorces, and their family news during those years, as well as this long standing joke about Janet’s lack of vacations.
‘Well, then.” Rosemary supplies the punch line. “I’d say that you’ve finally got your jam today.’
‘Finally, yeah,’ Janet says, grinning. ‘And the view from here is an extra helping. It makes me feel all John of Gauntish. This sceptered isle and like that.’
They are standing at a window on the top floor of the Canary Wharf office building, rising among the ruins of the Docklands. Since they are facing west, London stretches out before them into the misty distance on either side the Thames, glittering in the bright sun of a warm autumn day. All along the banks the new retaining walls rise, bleak slabs of concrete, while the river runs fast and high between them. Janet can pick out the complex round the Tower and the new barricades round its ancient walls, protecting them from tides gone mad. Just east of the Tower, near what used to be St. Katharine’s Docks, huge concrete pylons, hooded like monks in sheet metal, rise out of the river. Boats swarm round, workmen overrun them, all rushing to finish the new barrier before the winter sets in.
‘Well,’ Janet says. ‘Maybe not John of Gauntish. Rosemary, this is really pretty awful, the floods, I mean.’
‘If the new barrier holds . . . ‘ Rosemary lets her voice trail away.
Janet considers her friend for a moment. In the glittering light Rosemary looks exhausted. Her pale blonde and gray streaked hair, carefully coifed round a face innocent of make-up, somehow emphasizes the dark circles under her eyes. Along with a handful of other MP’s, Rosemary fought long and hard to get the barrier built further east, just upriver from the old one, argued and insisted that the East End should be saved, that millions of people and their homes not be abandoned — but in the end, more powerful interests won. Engineers could guarantee the barrier if built at this location, and of course, it cost much less than her counter‑proposal. As a sign of social impartiality, the Docklands, an embarrassment to British business for the last forty-odd years, have been left unprotected by the new barrier as well.
‘We’d best go down,’ Rosemary says.
‘Yeah.’ Janet turns, glancing round the lobby toward elevator doors that hang not quite at a right angle to the floor. ‘How long do you think this building’s going to stand?’
‘Well, we don’t get earthquakes here, you know, like you do in San Francisco.’ Rosemary smiles briefly. ‘The Free University will probably be able to use it for some years yet. After all, the predictions are vague — about the warming trend, I mean. No one can pinpoint the rise year by year. It may even have peaked.’
‘That’s true, of course. And if they get the embankment built up along here, well, that’ll hold for a while more.’
‘If they do. If, my dear.’
During the ride down neither woman speaks, both listen, rather, to every small creak and rattle that the cage and cables make. Ground water and shifting terrain have begun to damage the ever so delicate array of wires and power conduits upon which Twentieth Century buildings depended. When the doors open smoothly at the ground floor, Janet lets out her breath in a long sigh of relief. She’s glad, as well, to get outside to air that needs no artificial circulation.
On the small flagstone plaza students gather, chattering among themselves under the huge canvas banner, lettered in red, announcing the conference at which Janet has just been the featured guest. “Women’s Gains: a Century of Progress.” A century of crawling forward would be more honest, Janet thinks. Even on this lovely afternoon, the work to be done haunts her. She reminds herself that this is a vacation, that she has left all the files from outstanding cases at home, that her law practice will survive without her for two weeks and her new book will, as well. Besides, her assistant back home has her itinerary, and he can always call if he really needs her.
‘It was a good speech, you know,’ Rosemary says abruptly. ‘It was one of those that makes me think, my god, I know someone famous!’
Much to her own surprise, Janet blushes.
‘Oh now really,’ Rosemary says. ‘Sorry.’
‘No problem. And I have to admit, I wallowed in all that applause. But you should talk! Lately you’ve been in the media lots more than me.’
‘Only as a crank, my dear. Another Liberal party crank, flogging her unpopular ideas.’
‘Well, don’t you think that’s what I am? Back in the States, I mean. A small “l” liberal crank at best. A tool of Satan is more like it.’
They look at each other, grimace, shrug, and walk across the plaza. In the shade of the low embankment, near the steps up to the RiverBus dock, someone has set up a table and folding chair. A young woman lounges in the chair; a monitor and set of input tablets lie on the table. Nearby stands a man of about fifty, short and compact, his dark curly hair streaked with grey, his skin the light brown of Thames mud. At the sight of Rosemary he waves vigourously and grins.
‘Jonathan, hullo!’ Rosemary drifts over. ‘Have you met Janet? Janet Corey. Jonathan Richards.’
They shake hands and smile. Jonathan wears a stubbornly old-fashioned shirt, white and buttoning up the front, with long sleeves rolled up just below his elbows.
‘I’m manning the trenches today.’ Jonathan waves at the table and the monitor. ‘Petitions.’
‘Petitions for what?’ Janet asks.
‘Raising the banks round the Free University. I’m its bursar, you see, and I’m not looking forward to rowing to work every morning.’
‘Well, yeah, I guess not.’ Janet glances at the low dirt bank, topped with a thin layer of asphalt. ‘That won’t hold long, if the predictions come true.’
Jonathan nods, glancing at Rosemary, who sighs, reaches up to rub her eyes with the back of one hand.
‘We keep introducing the special requisition,’ Rosemary says. ‘Perhaps if you do get some show of popular support . . .’
‘Just so. Hence, the petitions.’ He grins at Janet. ‘I’d ask you to sign, but obviously you vote elsewhere.’
From the river drifts the sound of an airhorn — the hovercraft on its way to dock. Muttering goodbyes, fumbling in their handbags for pass cards, Rosemary and Janet hurry up the steps. Out on the water the hovercraft is pausing, backing, working its way through the crowd of small boats and barges, which are scurrying out of its way in turn. On the dock, down by the gangplank two men in the blue uniforms of the RiverFleet huddle over a portable media link. Janet can just hear the announcer’s midget voice say, ‘deteriorating situation in Detroit’ before music carries it away.
‘Er, excuse me,’ Janet says. ‘Could you tell me what that was about?’
At the sound of her flat American voice the officer nods agreement.
‘I hope you’re not from Detroit,’ he says. ‘There seem to have been more riots. Fuel oil rationing, I believe it was.’
‘Probably. It usually is. Thanks; thanks very much.’
As she follows Rosemary down the gangplank to the boat, Janet wonders at herself, that she would take the news of “just another riot” so calmly.
News, bad news, dogs her holiday. As she leaves London, heading north on the Flying Scotsman, she reads of riots spreading all through the Rust Belt, from Chicago in the west to New Jersey in the east. Pictures of the American National Guard quelling riots scroll past on the media screens that hang from the girders in the Edinburgh train station. By the next morning, British time, the news reports deaths; the waiter in the hotel dining room informs her, his voice grave, as she helps herself to whole grain cereal from a stoneware crock at the buffet. Seven young men, two young women, shot as they tried to loot — food in every case, he thinks it was.
‘How dreadful.’ I’ll never get used to this, at least. ‘How awful. Ohmigawd.’
He nods, hesitating, glancing round the nearly empty dining room, where a profusion of white linen lies on sunny tables. In a far corner two elderly men eat behind matching newspapers.
‘We had an American gentleman in earlier,’ he says at last. ‘He joked about it.’
‘No! Oh god, that’s really awful. What did he say?’
Again the glance round.
‘He said that in his day, young people had the sense to loot luxury items, like televisions. Said he didn’t know what was wrong with them, now-a-days.’
Janet cannot speak; she merely shakes her head.
‘I didn’t know what to answer,’ he says.
‘I wouldn’t have, either. You know, most Americans who can still afford to travel have, shall we say, rather right-wing leanings these days. The rest of us don’t.’
He smiles as if relieved, but she feels like a hypocrite, lumping herself in the category of “the rest of us” when she so obviously wears expensive slacks, a silk shirt, when she so indeniably is spending her vacation on expensive foreign soil.
‘Shall I bring tea to your table or coffee?’ the waiter says.
‘Tea, please. Thank you.’
For the next few days Janet tries to bury herself in problems of the past in order to ignore those of the present. She climbs up the rock of Din Edin, as she always thinks of it, where the Gododdin built their fortress. She knows too much about Mary Queen of Scots to romanticize her, finds herself avoiding the guided tour through the castle, and merely stands, looking down at the fang-sharp grey city below, while white stormclouds pile and build in the blue sky. That night, while she listens to the news on television, it rains. As an aside, almost an afterthought to the real news, the announcer speculates on how long the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne will remain above sea-level. The restored castle on its smaller version of Din Edin’s rock is safe, of course, but on the flat, villagers stubbornly cling to ancestral land which sinks into a rising sea.
On the morrow, guidebook in hand, Janet wanders through the National Museum of Antiquities. She spends much of her time there studying the Pictish standing stones. Across the marble floor of a vast hall, decorated with murals of the Highlands, the newly completed collection stands, tucked away from acid rain as the Highlands themselves cannot be. The present, it seems, cannot be avoided.
In her hotel bedroom that night, while she writes postcards to her only child, Amanda, to her nephew Richie’s family up in the Sierra Nevada, and finally, to friends, she flicks on the news out of habit and lets it rumble half-heard until American voices raised in anger force her to watch. Just a few seconds of footage make it plain that Congress has deadlocked over the question of imposing military law on rioting cities. Janet watches fat senators invoke God’s name until at last the screen changes to local news, good news: the child who wandered away from his family last night has been found, chilled to the bone but unharmed.
Janet windows the screen into four, then flips channels, finds at last among the meagre sixty‑four available on British television an international news feed, which turns out to be devoting itself to the droughts in Central Africa.
‘Damn!’ She flicks the monitor off. ‘But really, you know, you are supposed to be on vacation?’
Yet, all too soon, America invades her holidays across the bridge of the media. At first the troubles at home appear toward the end of a broadcast and only in the evening programme, but slowly they pull ahead and begin appearing on the morning feed as well. By her fourth night in Scotland, they’ve taken precedence over the Parliamentary debates about preserving British farmland. On the night that she reaches York, American news — the spreading of riots into Sunbelt cities, where fuel oil shortages provide no excuse — has inched in front of the ongoing discussion of whether King William should abdicate. By the time she reaches the Lake Country, the lead story and the headline in the newspapers as well have become REGULAR ARMY UNITS SUPPLEMENT NATIONAL GUARD IN AMERICAN CITIES.
Military law declared, generals replace mayors all across the nation — and in many pulpits though not all, preachers and priests announce that God is punishing America for pride and sin. The TIMES runs a special feature on the situation, which Janet reads, twice, sitting in the lounge of a small hotel, at a diamond-paned window, under a wood ceiling certified Tudor. Janet stares at the pictures of torn streets, impassive soldiers, smug preachers, for a very long time. All at once, she finds herself afraid.
The outcome reaches her in Cardiff. She has just emerged from the National Museum and crossed to the park where Iolo Morgannwg’s gorsedd circle stands, a minature henge of reddish stone. The morning’s rain has stopped, leaving the pale grey civic buildings clean and gleaming, the sky a parade of sun and cloud, the grass between the slabs of Iolo’s fancy bejewelled with drops. By the kerb a small electric truck dispenses whipped ice cream, and Janet debates buying a cone, setting her ever-present fear of cholesterol levels against the girlishness of this day. Not far away a group of teen-agers huddle round a media kiosk — a newstand, she suddenly realizes, not a video viewer, and without really thinking she drifts closer, hears the announcer mentioning Washington D.C. and drifts closer still. One of the boys looks up; she sees a familiar face, dark bangs, blue eyes, the busboy from her small hotel.
‘You’re the American, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, as a matter of fact.’
Silently he steps to one side to let her have his place in the huddle. The announcer, mercifully, is speaking English.
‘. . . riots feared in San Francisco. Units of the National Guard, as it is called in America, are moving into the city’s centre in spite of scattered resistance.’
Earthquake. Her first thought is natural disaster, the quake hit at last, the waiting over, and looters in the street. The announcer drones on.
‘Although news lines are down all across the nation, it would seem that the only resistance to the coup does lie in California. Leaders of the junta report that the control of other major cities passed peacefully into their hands early this morning.’
Nightmare, not earthquake.
‘How well those reports may be trusted remains to be seen. An emergency session of the European parliament has been called for later today. Earlier, the prime minister made this announcement outside Number Ten Downing street. . .’
‘Ohmigawd.’ Janet hears her voice tremble and skip. ‘Ohmigawd.’
The young men are watching her, she realizes. One steps forward and touches her elbow.
‘I’ll flag you down a cab.’
She can only nod, not speak, merely stands and trembles until at last the compu-cab pulls up to the kerb.
Back at her hotel room the telephone blinks, signalling messages. Janet hits the button, stands in the middle of the room and listens, merely stands and looks at striped wallpaper while Rosemary’s voice, harsh with unfamiliar urgency, asks if she’d heard the news. A second call, from her daughter, Mandi, left behind in San Francisco — for this* Janet watches the phonevid. Mandi’s face is dead-pale, her hands shake, even as she assures her mother that she’s all right. When Mandi begs her to call as soon as she can, Janet finds herself speaking aloud, “of course, dear,” in answer. A third message — this from her assistant, a terrible connection, Eddie’s voice chattering fast over the sound of traffic. The phonevid shows only static.
‘I’m calling from a payphone. I hope to god you get this. Don’t come home. They ransacked the office this morning. It’s SEVEN DAYS IN MAY. They took the files. Don’t come home. Stay where you are.’
Other voices break into the background of the call. Eddie curses. A click, the message over. Janet sits down in a blue-flowered chair next to the telephone, rewinds the tape, and listens to all three messages again. Clever of Eddie, to use the name of an old video to tell her everything she needs to know. The army’s been in her office. Half her discrimination cases pended against various military bureaucracies. There is no doubt now who will win them.
Her mouth is dry, her hands shake, and she feels abruptly cold, gets up to find a sweater, stares numbly round the room while she tries to remember what made her stand up, sits down again. She should call Mandi, reaches for the phone, stops herself. Doubtless they, this vast, suddenly ominous “they”, will have tapped Mandi’s phone by now. Will they go to Mandi’s flat and take her away like the files?
‘Her engagement will save her.’ Janet hears her own voice tremble, continues speaking aloud just to hear a voice in the room. ‘She’s Army now herself, really. She’s going to marry an officer. He’ll take care of her. Jack’s a good guy.’
Unless he has chosen to honour his sworn oath to the Constitution and refused to go along with the coup? Jack’s stationed in California, after all, named by the announcer as the one place offering any resistence. But who’s resisting? Military units? Street gangs? Libertarian and survivalist fighter packs? All of these in some patched-together coalition?
‘I’ve got to call my daughter.’
Janet reaches for the phone, pulls her hand back. If she calls, she might implicate Mandi in . . . in what? Something, anything, being the daughter of a liberal, who knows now what the word, crime, may mean. They’ve taken my files. They know all about me. They know about my daughter. When the phone rings, Janet screams. She gulps a deep breath and picks it up on the third pair of rings.
‘Janet? Thank god.’ Rosemary’s voice, slightly breathless, precedes her image, irising onto the phonevid. ‘You’ve heard?’
‘Well, look, the maglev train runs from Cardiff to London every hour up until seven o’clock tonight. Call me once you’ve bought your ticket and I’ll arrange to have you met at Euston. It’s going to take a while, so we have to start the process as soon as possible, and of course you’ll have to declare, so you’ll need to be at my office tomorrow morning.’
‘Declare? Rosemary, wait, slow down. What process?’
‘Applying for political asylum, of course. Janet, my dear friend! I’ve just been briefed by the Foreign Office. You can’t go back. You’ll be arrested the moment you step off the plane. They’re rounding up anyone who might oppose them. It’s horrid.’
Janet stares at the stripes, blue and white and grey.
‘Janet? Janet, look at the camera. Are you all right?’
‘Yeah, sure, sorry.’
‘Well, this has all been a bit of a shock, I’m sure.’
Janet restrains the urge to laugh like a madwoman.
‘At any rate,’ Rosemary goes on. ‘Do get packed up and get yourself down to the station. Wait, someone’s talking . . .’ A long pause while Rosemary chews on her lower lip. ‘Good god! Janet, listen. I’ll have a ticket waiting for you there. They might have taken over your accounts. Your cards might not work. I’ll contact your hotel, too.’
‘Already? They might have cut people’s cards off already? Oh god, they must have been planning this thing for years!’
‘Yes, it would certainly seem so. The Foreign Office are shocked, really shocked. They’ve been keeping an eye on something called the Eagle Brotherhood, but they had no idea of just how high it reached. Well. I’ll brief you later. Just get to London, so you can declare.’
‘Of course. Should I keep an eye out for assassins?’
‘Good god, don’t joke!’
‘Okay. Sorry. I’m on my way. Oh, Rosemary, wait!’
‘Yes, still here.’
‘Don’t worry about the train ticket. I’ve got a BritTravel pass. They couldn’t have touched that.’
‘Right. I’ll just ring up your hotel, then.’
Janet crams clothes and her bedtime book into her suitcases, checks the bathroom and finds her various toiletries, crams them into plastic bags and stuffs them into a side pocket of the biggest case. She carries the luggage down herself, reaches the hotel desk to find the clerk talking to Rosemary, writing down her charge numbers to settle the bill. The clerk pauses, her dark eyes narrow with worry, with sympathy.
‘It’s all been taken care of, ma’am.’
‘Thank you. Could you call a cab for me? Or wait, will they take a BritTravel card?’
‘They will, yes. Best of luck to you, ma’am.’
Janet restrains the urge to add “I’ll need it” like a character in an old video.
On the maglev, the trip to London takes a bare hour. Through polarized glass Janet sees the countryside shoot by, clear in the far distance, blurred close to the train. Although she’s used to thinking on her feet, having practiced for years in front of hostile judges, today she cannot think, can only worry about her daughter, her assistant, her sometime lover and closest friend, Robert, and all the other friends in their politically active circle, all left behind in San Francisco. I alone have escaped to tell you. She leans her face against the cool glass and trembles, too tormented to weep.
At Euston she hauls her bags off the train, finds a luggage cart and ladles them in, then trudges down the long platform, leaning on the cart handle for support like some bag lady, drifting through the streets with all she owns before her. As she emerges into the cavernous station hall, she sees two things: the enormous media screen on the far wall, and Jonathan Richards, wearing an old-fashioned tweed jacket flung over an old-fashioned blue shirt, hurrying to meet her. On the screen a man in uniform stands in the Oval Office next to a pale and shaking president. Across the boom and bustle of the hall the general’s words die before they reach her.
‘Hullo,’ Jonathan says. ‘I’d hoped to see you again on a better day than this.’
‘Rosemary rang me up and pressed me into service. She’s afraid that sending an official car would attract too much attention.’
Janet starts to answer, but her mouth seems to have frozen into place. Attract too much attention? From whom? Does the coup have the power to pluck its enemies from the streets of foreign cities?
‘Rather a nasty situation all round,’ Jonathan says. ‘Here, I’ll push that cart. The wheels always stick on these beasts.’ Nodding, Janet relinquishes the handle. As she follows him through the crowd she is trying to convince herself that she’s simply too unimportant to be a target, but her new book rises in her memory, and its brisk sales — CHRISTIAN FASCISM: THE POLITICS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS. You saw this coming, you’ve seen it for years, why are you so surprised?
Jonathan has spoken to her.
‘I’m sorry,’ Janet says. ‘I missed that.’
He smiles, his eyes weary.
‘Quite understandable. I’m just abandoning the cart. We go down the steps here.’
Books and papers heap the back seat of Jonathan’s small electric Morris. He slings the luggage in on top of them, hands Janet into the front seat, then hurries round behind the wheel. As they pull out, Janet realizes that night’s fallen. Street lamps halo out bright in a rising mist.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Ah. Thank you. I mean, really, thanks for coming down like this.’
‘Quite all right.’
During the drive out to Kew, where Rosemary lives in a huge walled complex of townhouses and gardens, Janet says very little. Her mind searches for its old humour, tries to find some quip or irony, fails, trails away into wonderings about Mandi and Robert. Suddenly she remembers that Robert talked about leaving the city during her vacation, about going up to her mother’s old house in the mountains. If he has, he will be safe; up in Goldust her family knows him, and they will take him in if he needs it. If he left. Will she ever know?
‘Jonathan? Have you heard if the phone lines to the States are down?’
‘It seems to depend on where you want to call. The various media have their own links, of course. The new programme that I was listening to on the radio implied that private calls are difficult, and the farther west you want to go, the worse it is.”
‘I was thinking that might be the case, yeah.’
‘We’ll get some sort of underground news network set up down at the university as soon as we can. Hackers.’ He glances her way briefly. ‘For a respectable sort of person I happen to know a remarkable number of hackers.”
‘They’ll see it as the best game in the world.’
When they reach the flat, Rosemary’s housekeeper lets them in, takes the luggage from Jonathan and takes it away. They wander into Rosemary’s yellow and white parlour, all slender Eurostil furniture and wall paintings. Rosemary loves florals, and on the display screens glow Renoirs and Monets, each garden blooming for some minutes, then fading to allow the next to appear. Jonathan heads straight for a white wooden cabinet.
‘Drink?’ he says.
‘Gin and tonic, please. I bet Rosemary’s on the phone.’
‘She’ll be hoarse before the night’s out, yes.’
Janet sinks into the corner of the pale leather sofa only to find herself confronted with a picture of her daughter, a snapshot she herself took on the day that Mandi graduated from college. Rosemary has had it enlarged and printed out, then framed in a yellow acrylic oval. In her dark red robes and mortar board Mandi looks overwhelmed, no matter how brightly she smiles for her mother’s camera. She is pale and blue-eyed, like her grandmother, and her long blonde hair streams over her shoulders. All at once Janet’s eyes fill with tears. She shakes them away and looks up to find Jonathan holding out a glass.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he says.
She nods and takes the drink.
‘You must be worried sick about your daughter.’
‘I am, yeah.’ She takes a sip before she goes on. ‘But actually, I was thinking of my mother. I’m really glad she didn’t live to see this.’
Jonathan sighs and flops into an armchair opposite. He is drinking something golden-brown, scotch, most likely, sips it and seems to be searching for something to say. Wearing a crumpled blue suit, Rosemary steps in to the room. Her red scarf slides from her shoulder and falls without her noticing.
‘Hullo!’ She smiles at Janet. ‘It is so good to see you safe.’
‘Thanks. Really, thank you for all the help. I don’t know what I’d have done without it.’
‘I’m sure you’d have thought of something, but I’m glad I’m placed as I am. Sorry I was on the phone when you arrived. I’ve been being courted. Rather nice, really.’
‘By the party whip, I assume?’ Jonathan hands her a drink.
‘Exactly.’ Rosemary sinks down into the other corner of the sofa. ‘Thank you, darling.’ She pauses for a long sip. ‘This is the situation. Emergency session tonight in a few hours. Labour want to threaten an immediate boycott of all American goods and services and to call for immediate restoration of democracy. The Tories, of course, do not. Enough Labour members may bolt to make our votes important. The Labour leaders are willing to be accomodating. I pretended to have doubts about the boycott for the sake of the British middle class.’ Rosemary smiles briefly. ‘And so you’ll get the embankment, Jonathan, to protect the Free University.’
Jonathan and Janet raise their glasses and salute her.
‘Corrupt, actually,’ Rosemary says. ‘But there we are.’ She turns Janet’s way. ‘I’m having some information transmitted to my terminal for you. About applying for asylum. We’d best get that underway tomorrow. They’re setting up a board to handle the applications, you see.’
‘Do you think there’ll be a crush?’ Jonathan said. ‘Most of the Yanks I’ve met lately will be overjoyed at the developments.’
‘The coup wouldn’t have struck without being sure of having a broad base of support,’ Janet says. ‘They’ve been building it for years. Mostly by playing on the crime issue — you know, the need for order in our embattled streets. And of course, moral values. The so-called family values.’
‘It’s always order, isn’t it?’ Jonathan says. ‘The excuse, I mean, for military governments. We must have order. Keep the people in line.’
Janet nods agreement.
‘Anyway, we’ll have dinner before I go,’ Rosemary says. ‘Have you remembered to eat today?’
‘No.’ Janet allows herself a smile. ‘Not since breakfast. Kind of a long time ago now.’
“Thompson will be serving soon, I should think. You know, I have no idea what sort of questions the Board will want answered during the asylum proceedings. Your books and career should be enough to satisfy them you’re in danger. I hope they don’t want an actual threat or your presence on some sort of list. How long do you have left on your tourist visa?”
‘Close to two months.’
‘Splendid! Surely that should be enough, even for a bureaucracy.’
‘Even for a British bureaucracy?’ Jonathan puts in, grinning.
Rosemary groans and holds out her glass for a refill.
‘It’s a good question, though,” Janet says. ‘I’ll have to have some visible means of support, won’t I?’
‘Oh here.’ Jonathan pauses on his way to the liquor cabinet. ‘Surely that won’t be a factor in the Board’s decision.’
‘It might,’ Rosemary breaks in. ‘The junta are bound to put pressure on our government in turn. They do have all the bombs, you know. I imagine they’ll be able to force a very strict adherence to the rules and regulations for this sort of thing.’
Jonathan thinks, chewing on his lower lip.
‘Well, here,’ he says at last. ‘The Free University sponsor lecture series. There’s no doubt that you’d be a major attraction, Janet. First, a series of public lectures featuring your book: Christian fascism — its roots and rise. Then a proper course for the student body: American Fascism, the historical background. I foresee no difficulty in getting the Committee to approve it.’
‘No doubt they’ll thank you.’ Rosemary turns a good bit brighter. ‘And of course, the book! It’s only just come out here, and my god, what a publicity event!’
Janet tries to laugh and fails.
‘But what about the money from that?’ Rosemary goes on. ‘Does it go to your agent in America?’
‘No, fortunately. She has a co-agent here in London, and David gets all monies received and converts them to pounds before he sends them on. I’ll call him tomorrow. He can just send my agent her cut and let me have the rest. Oh my god. My agent!’
‘Oh now here,’ Rosemary says. ‘You don’t think she’ll be arrested?’
Janet shrugs helplessly. She has absolutely no idea which of her acquaintances might be endangered by the simple act of knowing her.
‘It sounds to me,’ Jonathan says, ‘that one way or another you’ll do very well for yourself.’
‘Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? If I don’t mind being a professional exile.’
Although Janet meant the phrase as irony, it cracks out of her mouth like a pistol shot. Rosemary sighs and watches her, worried. Jonathan busies himself with refilling glasses.
‘Well, sorry,’ Janet says. ‘It’s not like I have a lot of choice.’
‘Just so, darling. Do you want to try to ring Mandi? It can’t put her into any worse danger than she’s already in.’
‘Just from having a mother like me? Oh god. But yeah, I do. I’ll just go into the other room.’
‘The green guest room. The one you had before.’
Janet sits on the edge of a narrow bed in a pool of yellow light and punches code into the handset. Halfway through, at the code for the San Francisco Bay Area, a string of whistles and shrieks interrupt.
‘I’m sorry, but we cannot complete your call as dialed. Please attempt to ring through at a later time.’
Later that night, when Rosemary has gone off to the Houses of Parliament and Jonathan to his home, Janet lies on the bed in her green and white guest room and watches the late news. Footage of tanks rolling down American streets, soliders standing on guard in front of banks, here and there the ruins of a shelled building — and yet it seems clear that the coup has faced little resistance, except out in the American west. The east, the south, and the capital belong, heart and soul, to the coup and the Christian right. Utah as well has declared for the new government, as have the southern counties of California, but up in the mountains, the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, the rain forests of the Cascades — in the high places even the spokesmen for the junta admit that a campaign of “pacification” lies ahead of them. There are no reports at all from Alaska. All network links seem to be down. Since the Native Americans there have been sabotaging government installations for the past fifteen years, Janet can guess that they’ve found sudden allies among the whites.
It doesn’t matter, Janet knows. In the end the coup will win, because the areas that resist matter little to the economic life of the country. They can be cut off and starved out until their cities fall to the neo-fascists. Perhaps Alaska will stay free, an instant republic. Down in the continental United States, up in the mountains, a guerilla war may continue for years, an annoyance but no threat to the new government, fought by a patchwork army of libertarians, survivalists, and honourable men.
The newscast changes to a parade through Washington, rank after rank of soldiers, Army and Marines marching through the rain. Past the Lincoln Memorial — Janet lays down the remote to wipe tears from her eyes. Yet she cannot stop watching, finds herself staring at the screen, puzzling over some small detail. She finds the close-up function, slides it on, zeroes her little white square over one soldier, clicks — and sees upon his shoulder the new patch added to his dress uniform, a white cross on a blue ground. She punches the screen back to normal so hard that the remote squalls in protest.
The end of the newscast shows the Senate voting extraordinary powers to the new chief of government security, that is, to the head of the coup, an Air Force general named James Rogers, and, almost as an afterthought, establishing a new office of public security, to be headed by a certain Colonel Nicholas Harrison. One picture catches Janet by surprise — she hadn’t expected Rogers to be black, just somehow hadn’t expected it.
Janet flicks off the terminal. For a long time she lies on the bed, staring at the blank screen, until at last she falls asleep with the lights on.
Morning brings coffee (real coffee served in a big mug by the ever-efficient Thompson), the sound of rain pounding on the windows, and memories. On the nightstand lies a telephone, its little screen a green gleam of temptation. Call my daughter. Don’t dare. Thompson opens one pair of curtains to grey light, smiles, and leaves again.
Janet gets up, flicks on the news, and dresses, gulping down the coffee in the intervals between zipping up her jeans and pulling a sweater over her head. The American coup has taken over the television as well as the United States. Janet windows the screen into four, finds a silent feed station for one, mutes the sound on two other programmes, and lets the BBC announcer drone at low volume while she unpacks her suitcases.
Except for Seattle the coup now controls every city in the continental United States. The BBC expect Seattle to surrender at any moment, guarded as it is by only two regiments of National Guard and some armed citizens. Since Russia and Japan have both offered their protection to the new Republic of Alaska, it will probably stand. In all three programme windows video rolls endlessly, tanks, Congress, dead bodies, fighter planes, refugees streaming north into Canada from Seattle and Detroit. On the silent feed maps flash; Janet takes a moment to click on the western states and freeze their image upon the screen. She zeroes in on San Francisco, clicks to magnify, sees a street map covered in a thin wash of red, too cheerfully raspberry for even metaphorical blood. The junta holds the city, the bridges are secured.
The search function throws a box on to the screen.
‘Do you wish to see a news feed from the city you have selected?’
The BBC disappears, and an ITV reporter pops into focus, standing in Civic Centre. Behind her rises City Hall, grey and domed in a foggy morning, but the high steps are strewn with corpses. Janet begins to tremble. She sits down on the edge of the bed and clasps her mug in both hands while the reporter, pale and dishevelled, speaks in a low voice of a night of horror, of teenagers firing handguns* at tanks, of teenagers shot down by those who were once their countrymen. The camera starts to pan through the pollarded trees of the skimpy plaza. A siren breaks into the feed; the reporter shouts something into her microphone; the feed goes dead.
Janet raises the remote and clicks the monitor off. She cannot watch any more of those pictures. Yet she must see more, she must know more. She raises the remote again, then hurls it onto the carpet. You’ll feel better if you cry. Why can’t you cry?
She cannot answer.
Thompson at the door, holding a tray — a silver pot, a pitcher of milk, a plate of something covered by a napkin.
‘Yes, thanks. Is Mrs. White at home?’
‘No, ma’am. She’s gone to her office.’
‘Ah. I thought so.’
Thompson sets the tray on the dresser, then stoops and picks up the remote. Janet takes it from him and without thinking, flips the monitor on again. An ITV executive stands before a studio camera, speaking very fast and very high while sweat beads on his high forehead. As far as he can determine, his crew in San Francisco have been arrested, hauled away like common criminals despite every provision of the UNESCO media pact signed just last year in Nairobi. Janet changes the station out from under his indignation. This time a search on the strings “San Francisco” and “northern California” turn up nothing, not on one of the sixty-four channels.
Janet makes the BBC and the silent feed into insets at the top of the screen, punches up the terminal program, then glances round for a more convenient input device than the TV wand. On the dresser, next to the silver tray, lies a remote keyboard. She picks it up, looks under the napkin — croissants, which normally she loves. Today they look disgusting. She sits on the floor with her back against the foot of the bed and rests the keyboard in her lap while she runs a quick search on documents filed under her name. She finds two directories created and set aside, coded for use, ASYLUM and JANETSWORK. Once again, Rosemary proves herself the hostess who thinks of everything.
When Janet brings up the first directory, she finds more than a meg of docs listed, including the full text of the Special Circumstances Immigration Act of 2028 and a sub-directory of material pertaining to the famous Singh case that triggered the writing of said legislation.
‘It’s a good thing I’m a lawyer. Hey, I better get used to saying solicitor.’
Janet cannot laugh, wishes she could cry. In her mind sound the words, “call your daughter.” All morning, as she studies the government-supplied infofiles and readies her application on the official forms, she pauses every ten minutes to try Mandi’s number, but the phone lines stay stubbornly down. While she works, she glances often at the two inset windows, where footage of the States in chaos silently rolls by. Finally, toward noon, she transmits the completed application to the office LOC number listed on the form. As an afterthought, she prints out a copy, wondering if perhaps she should go down and apply in person as well. When she calls Rosemary’s office, she gets Rosemary herself. Even on the tiny phonevid Janet can see dark smudges under her friend’s eyes.
‘I’m surprised you’re there.’
‘I just popped in to the office for a minute,’ Rosemary says, yawning. ‘Have you transmitted the application?’
‘I did, yeah. Yesterday you said something about going down to New Whitehall. Do you think I — ‘
‘No, don’t! I’ve heard that pictures are being taken of Americans entering the building.’
‘Taken? By whom? Wait, no, of course you can’t tell me.’
Rosemary’s image smiles, very faintly.
‘Ill just check to make sure the transmission’s been received, then,’ Janet says. ‘And stay here.’
‘Yes. That would be best. I’ll be back for dinner. If you’d just tell Thompson?’
Rosemary smiles again and rings off.
Janet returns the monitor screen to four windows of news. When she runs the search program, she finds one station with taped video from San Francisco, looping while serious voices discuss the news blackout. Colonel Harrison has issued a statement assuring the world media that the blackout is both regretted and temporary, that the telephone service has been disrupted by rebel sabotage and that it will be restored as soon as possible. No one believes him. As the video reels by, about an hour’s worth all told, Janet watches like a huntress, her eyes moving back and forth, studying details, searching desperately for the images of people she knows, seeing none, even though she stays in front of the monitor all day, watching the same loop, over and over.
‘Rosemary was quite right,’ Jonathan says. ‘The committee are beside themselves with joy. How soon can you give the first lecture? That was their only question.’
‘Wonderful,’ Janet says. ‘In a couple of days, I guess. I’ll have to call Eleanor — that’s my editor — and see if she can send me a copy of the book. I didn’t have one with me, and I don’t have any cash, and I can’t stand asking Rosemary for pocket money. She’s done too much for me already, feeding me and like that. Maybe I can squeeze an advance out of HCM. God knows the book’s been selling like crazy over here.’
‘HarperCollinsMitsubishi. My British publisher.’
Jonathan nods his understanding. On a day streaked with sun and shadow they are walking through the gardens in the centre of the condominium complex. Although the trees have dropped their leaves, the grass thrives, stubbornly green. All round the open space rise white buildings, staggered like drunken ziggurats.
‘No word from the immigration people yet?’ Jonathan says.
‘None. But it’s only been a couple of days since I filed the application.’
‘They probably haven’t even looked at it, then. The morning news said that over two thousand Americans have applied for political asylum in various countries. Quite a few business people were caught in Europe, I gather. A lot of them have come here.’
‘Yeah. I heard that three times that number are just going home.’ Janet hears her voice growl with bitterness. ‘Happy as clams with their new theocracy.’
‘Um, well, yes.’ Jonathan sighs, hesitates before continuing. ‘At any rate, I’ve got the University’s contracts for the public series and then for the course of study. I’ll transmit them to you tonight, so you can look them over. We’ll need to get handbills out for the lectures, by the way, and some notice to the media. We’d best start thinking of a general title.’
‘That’s true. I wonder if I’ll get hecklers? Oh well, they’ll be easier to handle than the ones back home.’
‘Rosemary told me once that you’d — well, had some trouble with thugs.’
‘Oh yeah. They beat the hell out of me. It was after an abortion rights rally, maybe what? Thirty years ago now. I had bruises for weeks. And a broken arm.’
‘Horrible, absolutely horrible! It’s lucky you weren’t killed.’
‘A lot of people were, back in those days. Doctors, nurses. Doctor’s wives, even.’ Janet shudders reflexively. She can still remember images of fists swinging toward her face and hear voices shrieking with rage, chanting Jesus Jesus Jesus. ‘All in the name of God. No, that’s not fair. In the name of the warped little conception of God that these people have.’
‘The history of an illusion. Living history, unfortunately.’
‘Yeah, very much alive and well in the US of A. I suppose abortion’s the first thing the new government’s going to outlaw.’
‘They have already. The TIMES had a list, this morning, of the various acts they’ve pushed through your Congress. Quite a lot for just a few days’ work. The junta released the list, you see. They’re holding press conferences for official news as well.’
‘I should look that over.’ Janet tries to muster an ironic laugh, can’t. ‘Well, there goes my life’s work, right down the drain. What do you bet that I’ve been on the wrong side of every law they’ve just passed?’
‘Doesn’t sound like my idea of a fair wager at all.’ He hesitates, frowning down at the gravelled walk. ‘Rosemary said there’s been no word of your daughter.’
‘That’s right, yeah. Well, no news is good news. The Red Cross doesn’t have her name on any of the casualty lists. It hasn’t appeared on any of the lists of political prisoners, either.’
‘That’s something, then. Some of my young friends are working on getting a network pieced together. Perhaps they’ll run across something.’
‘How can they even reach the States with the phone lines down?’
‘Satellite feeds of some sort. Military, probably. I’ve asked them not to tell me more. And then they can maybe get in through Canada. Somehow. As I say, I don’t really want to know.’
That evening Janet goes over the contracts from the Free University, finds them fair and the proposed payment, generous. Since the money will come from a special fund, the cheque will no doubt be slow in coming. She decides to call her agent tomorrow and ask him to see about an advance from the publishers.
‘But who knows when we’ll get it?’ Janet says. ‘Rosemary, I hate sponging on you like this.’
‘Oh please!’ Rosemary rolls her eyes heavenward. ‘Who was it who fed and housed my wretched son when he was going through his loathsome phase? He leeched for absolutely months.’
‘Oh, he was no trouble, really, since I wasn’t his mother.’
They share a laugh at the now-respectable Adrian’s expense.
‘Well, you’re not any trouble, either,’ Rosemary goes on. ‘In fact, that reminds me. I had a phonecard made up for you — on my account, that is. It’ll be weeks before you can open your own, and you’ll need access.’
‘Well, I will, yeah. Thanks. I wonder when I’ll be able to phone home.’
They both find themselves turning in their chairs, glancing toward Mandi’s picture on the end table.
‘Sometimes I’m sorry that I waited so long to have a child,’ Janet says. ‘Here I am in my sixties, and she’s just getting married. God, I hope she’s still getting married. Jack means the world to her.’
‘She’s not like us, no.’
In the photo Mandi smiles, tremulous under her mortarboard, the English literature major with no desire to go to graduate school.
‘I just hope she’s happy.’ Janet’s voice shakes in her throat. ‘I just hope she’s all right. You know what the worst thing is? Wondering if she hates me, wondering if she hates what I am.’
‘Oh, surely not!’
‘If they won’t let her marry Jack? If they call her a security risk?’
‘Oh god, they wouldn’t!’
‘Who knows? Look at the things that happened back in the 1950’s, with that McCarthy creature. Witch hunts. It could happen again. I won’t know how she feels until I get through.’
Rosemary is watching her carefully, patiently. Janet concentrates upon the changing gardens on the display screen, view after view of Giverny fading one into the other.
‘They’ll have to restore the telephones soon,’ Rosemary remarks at last. ‘Business people are howling world-wide. The more centrist Tories are coming round, even. Imagine! Tories actually entertaining thoughts of a commercial boycott! I hear the European parliament is considering a strong resolution to embargo. It’s supposed to come to a head tonight. Then we’ll take it up tomorrow here, if it passes. Of course, it’s just a call for embargo, not a binding act.’
‘The junta won’t care.’
‘What? Half of America’s wealth is in trade!’
‘I know these people. They’ll be willing to plunge the country into poverty, if that’s what it takes to keep it isolated and under control. Of course, if they do that, they’ll lose a lot of their support among the middle class and the corporate types. So what? It’s a little late for those people to be changing their damn minds now.’
‘Well, I mean, that’s just my opinion.’
‘It’s one of the best we have, isn’t it?’
‘Well, you have lived there.’ Rosemary shakes her head. ‘It’s so odd — I read your book, and yet I thought you were being something of an alarmist. I suppose I didn’t want, I suppose no one wanted to believe it possible, like that ancient novel, what was it called, the Wells?’
‘No, that’s Orwell. The other Wells fellow. IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE. That was it. I think.’
‘Well, it hasn’t happened here, just there.’
‘Yes.’ Rosemary hesitates for a long moment, then sighs. ‘Yes, but that’s quite bad enough.’
Janet was always good at waiting. In discrimination cases waiting served as a weapon, asking the court for a postponement here, a recess there, playing a hard game with powerful opponents who knew that every day they waited without settling was another day for her team to gather evidence, to sway public opinion, to demand another investigation, to serve another writ. But none of those waits ever involved her daughter.
Over that first fortnight of exile, Janet evolves a ritual. Every morning she scans the news, both media and hard copy, for information about the American telephone shut-down, as the papers have taken to calling it. Then, on the off-chance that she missed something, she calls Mandi’s number four times a day, mid-morning, mid-afternoon, dinner hour, late night. She never gets through. Since the junta has stopped all out-going calls, Mandi cannot call her. Janet assumes her daughter knows where she is, that she must realize, by now, that her mother will be sheltering with the woman Mandi’s always considered her aunt. Every now and then some military spokesman announces that service will be restored soon, very soon. Oddly enough, the infamous Colonel Harrison has disappeared, and a new chief of public security appears now and again on the news. Janet assumes that Harrison has fallen victim to some sort of internal purge; fascists always do fall out among themselves, sooner or later.
Some news does get released: the names of casualties, the names of those imprisoned. Unlike South American dictatorships, which at least realize their crimes to be unspeakable, this junta sees no reason to conceal their victims in silences and mass graves, not when they believe themselves the agents of God on earth. Amanda Elizabeth Hansen-Corey never appears among the names, not on either list. Janet reads each three times through, very slowly, to be absolutely certain of it. By doing so she finally spots Eddie’s name, spelled out formally as Josè Eduardo Rodriguez, who has been sentenced to six months imprisonment for assisting an enemy of the state.
‘Oh, Eddie! How horrible, how unfair!’
Only much later does Janet realize the full significance of the charge. She herself, of course, is the enemy of the state to whom they referred. She has now been publicly branded as a criminal.
The students at the Free University call their building Major’s Last Erection, a name that’s been handed down for the last forty years or so, even though few people remember who the major in question was. A prime minister, Janet tells them, not an army officer at all. Few seem to care. Several times a week she goes down to Canary Wharf, ostensibly to meet with Jonathan and the Curriculum Committee, but in reality to sit around and drink tea with a group of women students. Like most of the students at the university, Rachel, Mary, Vi, and Sherry come from working-class backgrounds; indeed, they all work, waitressing part-time, mostly, to keep themselves in school.
Vi — small, skinny, and very pale, with ash-blonde hair and watery blue eyes– always wears black, black jeans, black shirts, black cloth jackets, since she can’t afford leather. Unlike the rest, she knows computers from the inside rather than merely being able to use what BritLink offers the average citizen. Her father was a repairman for the computer end of the Underground; he helped his daughter put together her own system from obsolete parts when she was seven years old.
‘It was for my birthday, like,’ Vi tells Janet. ‘I was ever so pleased with it, too, all those lovely games it could play. Course, I’d never seen a real system then, mind.’ She grins with a flash of gold tooth. ‘But it was a good time, anyway, and it got me off to a good start.’
Good start, indeed. When the other girls leave for their jobs, Vi takes Janet up to the thirteenth floor of the office building and a room officially labelled, “Computer Laboratory.” They march through the ranks of official students learning programming and pass through a door into a smaller room, where Vi’s boyfriend, Harry, has put together another system from spare parts — but these, state of art and pilfered, probably. Janet never asks. Vi is installing a remote feed to a satellite hook-up in the pub where Rachel works over in Southwark, just a few blocks from the cathedral. This particular pub features sports on television and thus owns its weak link-up quite legitimately, but it’s also close to various corporate offices with strong links and remote feeds to other satellite systems.
‘Piece of cake,’ Vi says. ‘Once we link up to the Goal Posts’ feed, we can bleed into anything within a couple of kills.’
‘Sorry. Kilometres. And then.’ Vi smiles with a flash of gold. ‘And then we’ll see. You don’t want to know any more.’
‘That’s very true.’ Janet grins at her. ‘I don’t.’
At Janet’s first public lecture so many people turn up to buy tickets that the University Audio/Visual crew set up a video link to a second auditorium to accommodate the overflow. At the second lecture, scheduled for the largest hall available, two unobtrusive men in dark blue suits appear upon the platform as Janet arranges her notes. Jonathan introduces them as Sergeant Ford, Officer Patel.
‘The Foreign Office thought you’d best have some protection,’ Ford remarks. ‘You never know these days, do you now?’
‘Ah, well, no, I suppose not.’ Janet is annoyed to find her hands shaking. She shoves them into the pockets of her blue blazer. ‘You’re from the Foreign Office?’
‘No, ma’am. Scotland Yard. They just had a word with us, like.’
‘I see. Well, thank you.’
During the lecture Ford sits on the platform while Patel stands at the back of the hall. After the lecture they follow, staying close but not too close, as she goes to lunch with Jonathan and several students. When she returns to the condominium, Patel escorts her while Ford follows in an unmarked car. At the gate to the complex, Patel has a few murmured words with a new security guard. Janet has never seen security guards at the gate before. From then on, she sees guards every day.
On the seventeenth day of her exile Janet receives a telephone call from the Immigration Office. Her application for political asylum is being processed. If her application is accepted, she will be issued a “red card”, a visa allowing employment, good for a two year’s stay in Britain, at which point her case will need to be reviewed. Janet, who knows all this, senses trouble.
‘Is something missing on the application?’
‘Well, not exactly.’ The blonde and pink-cheeked girl on the phonevid looks sorrowful. ‘It would be a good thing, you see, if you had a bank account or some sort of financial arrangement. We can’t legally require this, but . . .’
Janet has heard many such “buts,” fading with a dying fall, in her career.
‘I understand. Thank you very much. I’ll attend to it.’
‘Fine. Just transmit a one oh oh four seven, will you?’
‘A change or correction to an application form. The parameters should have been transmitted with your packet.’
‘Yes, of course. I do remember seeing the file now.’
On the high street in Kew stands an imposing Eurostil building, all glass front and slender columns, a branch of Barclay-Shanghai-Consolidated. Armed with several large checks, one from her publisher, another from the Free University’s public affairs fund, Janet walks in one sunny afternoon to open a checking account. Does she have references? Well, she can give them. But does she have the references with her, signed and ready? By British citizens, please. With the situation in America so dodgy, they are worried about money transfers and suchlike. Surely she understands? No, she does not understand. She has cheques drawn upon British banks in her possession, paper cheques, stamped and validated for instant deposit. Ah. Another manager must be called.
This manager, tall and grey, sports incredibly refined vowels. Janet tells her story once again, waves the cheques about, mentions Rosemary’s name several times. He understands, he tells her, but with the situation in America so dodgy, they would prefer to have a British co-signer. Janet tells him, with some vehemence, that she is not a minor child or a halfwit. The manager bows several times in an oddly Japanese manner and apologizes as well. He drops his voice, leans forward in a waft of lemon‑drop scent.
‘The real problem is that you’ve not got your red card.’
‘If I don’t have a bank reference, I won’t get one.’
He blinks rapidly several times and looks round the cream-coloured lobby. Janet does, as well, and spots a large brightly coloured poster.
‘It says there that any one can open a Christmas Savings Club account. “From nine to ninety years of age, all are welcome.” It must be a special deal, huh?’
The manager blinks again and stares.
‘I want to open a Christmas Club account,’ Janet says, as calmly as she can manage. ‘According to your own advertising, I may do so any time before fifteenth November. It is November eleventh today.’
‘Ah, why, so it is.’ He sighs in a long drawn-out gush of defeat. ‘If you’ll just step up to this counter?’
Janet deposits over a thousand pounds in her Christmas Savings Club account and receives in return a bank number, an electronic access number, and a passbook with a picture of Father Christmas on the front. Later that day, she brings up the bank’s public information files on her terminal and spends several hours studying them. As she suspected, holders of one account may open another electronically. She opens herself a checking account, transfers most of her Christmas Club monies into it at a mere one per cent penalty, and has two numbers to transmit to Immigration on Form 10047.
On the twenty-seventh day after the junta killed the United States of America, their underlings restore full international telephone service to the corpse. Thompson brings Janet the news with her breakfast.
‘They say the service isn’t at top quality yet, Ma’am.’
‘As long as I can get through, I don’t care.’
Janet checks the time: seven o’clock here, minus eight makes damn! eleven at night there. Mandi will most likely be asleep, but Janet cannot wait. Even reaching her daughter’s answering machine will be better than nothing.
Picking up the handset gives her a moment of doubt. Will this call bring Rosemary trouble? For a moment she considers the shiny plastic oblong, studded with buttons. Somewhere inside it lies the white strip of encoded optics that sum up Rosemary’s identity as a communicating being. Somewhere in a vast computer is the Platonic ideal of this actual number, the electronic archetype which gives this physical object its true meaning, its being. Frail things, these archetypes, and so easy to destroy with one electric pulse, one change of code. What if the junta is automatically wiping codes that dial certain numbers? Could they do that?
Not to a British citizen’s account, surely. Janet punches in Mandi’s familiar number. Although the call seems to go through smoothly, after two rings a long beep interrupts. A switch of some sort — Janet can hear a different ring, oddly faint. Her hands turn sweaty — FBI? Military police? At last a voice, a taped voice:
‘I’m sorry. The number you have reached is no longer in service. Please access the directory files for the area which you have attempted to call.’
A click. A pause. The message begins again. Janet hangs up with a fierce curse.
Gulping coffee, she throws on a pair of jeans and a striped rugby shirt, then sits on the floor cross-legged with the keyboard and the remote wand in her lap. Switching the terminal over to remote phone mode takes a few irritating minutes, but at last she can dial on-screen and start the long process of accessing the international directory number. The British memory banks still show Mandi’s numbers as functioning. She should have expected that, she supposes. When would they have had time to update? If indeed the junta will ever allow them to update.
On her next pass Janet tries the normal directory number for San Francisco. Much to her shock she reaches it. For all their talk of rebel sabotage, obviously the junta had disabled the phone system at some central source, some master switch or whatever it might be, so that it could be restored cleanly and all at once when they had need of it again. In this directory she finds Mandi’s old number clearly marked as out of service.
When Janet tries a search on Mandi’s name, she turns up nothing. A moment of panic — then it occurs to her to try Amanda Elizabeth Hansen-Owens, Mrs. Sure enough, such a name appears, cross‑referenced to John Kennedy Owens, Captain. My daughter is married. I wasn’t there. In the next column, however, where a telephone number should appear, Janet finds only code: UNL-M. She windows the screen in half, leaving Mandi’s entry visible, and in the Help utility finds at last the decipherment of codes. UNL-M. Unlisted, military. For a long time Janet stares at the screen. She wipes it clear and turns it off, lays the keyboard and the wand down on the carpet beside her.
At least Mandi has been allowed to marry her officer. At least. Even if the little bastard has hidden her away from her mother. Don’t be ridiculous! She’ll call you. She’s not dumb. She knows you’re at Rosemary’s. Or that Rosemary will know where you are.
Or, Janet supposes, she herself could call friends in California and see if they know Mandi’s new number. Mandi had a job in a bookshop — perhaps she could call there? But she was going to quit when she married, because she would be living on base, too far away. Perhaps her old employer will have her new number? The thought of Eddie’s prison sentence stops Janet from calling him. She should wait until the situation settles down, until the normal traffic on the telephone lines picks up. Surely the junta won’t be able to tap every call, surely they wouldn’t bother, not just on the off-chance that she and all those other enemies of the state might say something subversive in a casual conversation.
At lunch, in a little Italian restaurant near the Houses of Parliament, Janet tells Rosemary of her morning’s frustrations.
‘I’m honestly afraid to put people at risk by calling them,’ Janet finishes up. ‘Or am I just being paranoid?’
‘I don’t know. You’re quite possibly being realistic. A dreadful thought, that, but there we are.’ Rosemary contemplates her wine glass with a vague look of distaste. ‘Poor Eddie. I only met him briefly, of course, during that last flying visit, but he was such a nice fellow. It’s so awful, thinking of him in prison.’
‘I’d hate to have the same thing happen to Mandi’s boss or any of my friends.’
‘Well, of course. Or your nephew. What was his name? The one who’s so good with horses.’
‘Richie. Although, you know, he’s probably the safest person I could call. He lives way the hell up in the Sierras, and I can’t imagine anyone suspecting him of subversion, up in that tiny little town.’
‘True. What about Robert?’
‘Yeah. What about Robert?’ Janet lays down her fork. ‘I went back later and looked for his number on the directory. It’s been taken out of service, too. But I’ve never found his name on the lists. Of the prisoners, I mean.’ Janet’s voice breaks. ‘Or the casualties.’
Her mouth full, Rosemary nods in the best sympathy she can muster. Janet leans back in her chair, turns a little, too, to look over the crowded restaurant, and sees Patel standing at the door.
‘It must be time for me to head out to the Free You,’ Janet says. ‘There’s my bodyguard.’
‘Well, he can wait while you finish.’
‘I’m not hungry any more. I don’t know who I’m more worried about, Mandi or Robert. Robert, I guess. At least I know now she’s married.’
‘And she’ll call. She must know that I’d provide for you, one way or another.’
‘Yeah. You’re right. She’ll call.’
But Mandi never does call, not that day, not the next, not for the entire week after service is restored. Janet wakes every morning to a winter come at last, stands by her window and looks out on slate grey skies, afraid to leave the flat and miss her daughter’s call, which never comes.
‘I suppose she’s just afraid,’ Rosemary says.
‘I hope she doesn’t hate me.’
‘Why should she? She’s been allowed to marry Jack.’
‘Well, maybe so. Do you know what I really think? She’s disowned me. They may even have made her do it, for all I know. But I do know she’s got too much to lose by associating with me.’
‘Oh my god! No!’
Janet shrugs, finding no words.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Rosemary says at last. ‘But I think you’re right.’
‘Yeah? So do I.’
With Officer Patel trailing behind, they are walking across the plaza in front of the Free University. Around them students in long hair and American blue jeans drift by. Some wear crumbling leather jackets; others, bulging canvas coats decorated mostly with pockets. A few carry books as well as the standard terminal units.
‘It’s very odd, this place,’ Rosemary says. ‘Do you suppose they actually learn anything?’
‘I’m about to find out. It’s not exactly a new idea, though, a free university. The ones back home have been around for a long while, anyway. Well, I suppose the junta’s closed them now.’
‘I suppose so, yes.’ Rosemary pauses, watching a particularly grubby couple saunter by. ‘Better to give them this than to have them rioting again, anyway. Not that they were real riots, compared to yours.’
“Um. Maybe so.” Janet stops walking and points to a small crowd, standing by the steps up to the RiverBus dock. ‘There’s your photo op.’
‘Right. I see Jonathan. I suppose I’ll have to wear that silly hard-hat he’s carrying, even though nothing’s been built yet.’
Today the work starts on the new flood barrier round the university. Wearing plastic hardhats, men in suits stand uneasily next to men in work clothes wearing solid metal ones. Sandbags, the first, temporary line of defense against the river, lie scattered about and rather randomly. The media, minicams and mikes at the ready, cluster near a van serving tea in foam cups. When Rosemary trots over, Jonathan does indeed hand her the yellow hat. She puts it on as the cameras close in.
In the middle of the night Janet wakes from a dream of San Francisco in late afternoon, when light as gold and thick as honey pours down the hills and dances on the trees. There is no light in the world like the muted sun of Northern California. Sitting up in bed she weeps, knowing that she will never see it again. She will never see her daughter again, either. She knows it at that moment with a cold hard twist of sickness in the pit of her stomach.
And she weeps the more.
The phone call from Immigration comes some ten days before Christmas. Janet’s application has gone through. Would she please pick up her red card in person? They require a witnessed signature and a look at her old passport. For the occasion Janet puts on a grey suit that she’s just bought at Harrod’s — severe trousers, a softened jacket with pleats — and wears it with a peach-coloured silk shirt suitable for a woman her age. As she combs her hair, she looks in the mirror and sees her face as a map: all the roads she’s taken are engraved on her cheeks and round her eyes. For the first time in her life she feels old. There’s nothing for me to do in Britain but die here. The image in the mirror saddens and droops. What can she do against the men who taken over her homeland? She can write and lecture, yes, but it’s so little, so weak, so futile. Perhaps she should just give up, live out her last years as an exile, write poetry, maybe, teach for a pittance at the Free University and keep her mouth shut. My big mouth. Look at all the trouble it’s gotten me into.
She turns and hurls the comb across the room. It bounces on the bed, then slides to the floor with a rattle.
‘I will not give up. I’m only a mosquito, maybe, on their ugly hide, but goddamn it, I’ll draw what blood I can.’
During the cab ride down to the Immigration offices, Janet begins planning her next book. Since her research material has no doubt been confiscated by the junta, she will have to write a personal memoir, hazy on hard facts, but if she works on the prose, she can make it sting. She will dedicate it to Mandi, she thinks, then changes her mind. She refuses to make danger be her last gift to her daughter.
Picking up her red card turns out to be easy and anti-climatic. Two clerks look at her passport, one asks her to sign various documents. In front of the pair Janet promises, quite sincerely, that she will refrain from attempting to overthrow the British government. The first clerk hands her a packet of paper documents and the small red card, laminated in plastic.
‘Keep this with you at all times,’ he says. ‘And your passport, I suppose. We’ve not had any guide lines on that, but you might as well.’
‘Thanks, then, I will.’
When she leaves the building, Janet finds herself thinking of her mother, of her mother’s house up in Goldust, her nephew’s house, now. It was a wonderful place to be a child, that house, with the mountains hanging so close and the big trees all round. She remembers hunting for lizards in rock walls and rescuing birds from her mother’s cats, remembers thunderstorms bursting and booming over the high mountains as well as drowsy days of sun and the scent of pine. What if she had never left the mountains? What if she’d married Jimmy, the boy in high school who loved her, married him and settled down to get pregnant the way most girls did up in the mountains, or maybe taken a job in the drugstore till the babies came. She wouldn’t be an exile now, drifting down the streets of a city that will never be hers, no matter how much she loves it. She would have gone crazy, probably. She reminds herself sharply of that. She always knew that she would have to leave Goldust from day she learned to read and found a wider world beyond the hills.
But Mandi would have been happy in that house. She loved visiting her grandmother. Mandi might have been happy living in Goldust, too, safe and tucked away from the world.
Driven by her memories, Janet finds herself drifting to the nearest card phone, built into a red plastic slab inside a red plastic kiosk, sheltered from the sound of traffic plunging past. While she fumbles through her wallet, out the door she sees long lawns behind wrought iron fences. It should be safe to call Richie, it really should. Why would the authorities bother her nephew, a rural teamster? But he might know where Mandi is, he really just might know.
When Janet slides the card through the slot, she can feel her shoulders tense and hunch. With shaking fingers she punches in the code, hears other beeps, and then rings. The phone is ringing. By the most slender of all links she’s connected again, for this brief moment, to the Sierra, to Goldust, to what was once her mother’s house. She can picture the yellow telephone, sitting on Richie’s old-fashioned wood slab desk, right next to the pictures of his family in their red acrylic frames. Three rings, four — a click, and the room changes. She can think of it no other way, that the piece of space at the other end of the line has changed, grown larger, as if she could see the shabby wicker furniture, scattered with cats.
‘Hello.’ The sound of Richie’s voice brings tears to her eyes. ‘You have reached 555-5252. Richie, Allie, and Robert aren’t home right now. Please leave us a message, and we’ll call you back.’
Another click, a long tone. Janet hesitates, then hangs up fast. She cannot risk leaving a message, tangible evidence to some kangaroo court, perhaps, that Richie knows a traitor. As she takes her card out of the slot, the names she heard finally register. And Robert. Not just Richie’s name, not just his wife’s name, but Robert’s name as well.
‘He made it to the mountains. Oh thank god.’
Janet reaches for her wallet to put the card away, but her fingers slip on the vinyl, and she nearly drops her purse. She glances round: two people have queued up to use the phone. Her paranoia stands at the head of the line. What are they really, this Pakistani woman in the pale grey suit, this Englishman in pinstripes? Agents, maybe? She pretends to drop her purse to gain a little time, squats, cooing unheard apologies, collects her things, shoves the card away along with the wallet and the handkerchief, her stylus and her notebook, her US passport that used to mean so much. With a gulp of breath she stands, settles the purse on her shoulder, and lays a hand on the door. The Englishman is looking at his watch. The Pakistani woman is studying a tiny address book.
Janet gulps again, then swings the door wide and steps out. The Pakistani woman slips into the booth; the Englishman drifts closer to the door; neither so much as look her way as she strides off, heading blindly toward the gate into the park, searching for the safety of green and growing things. In the rising wind leafless trees rustle. Out on the ponds ducks glide. Janet smiles at them all like an idiot child. Robert is free, will most likely stay that way, because indeed, the junta have no reason to hunt him down, the apolitical artist, the popular teacher of the least political subject in the world.
But no news of Mandi. She watches the ducks glide back and forth, the midges hovering at the water’s edge, while she tries to make up her mind once and for all. Will she dare call Richie again? It was stupid of her to endanger him at all, stupid and selfish. At least if the military police do try to trace that call, all they’ll get is the number of a public phone near Green Park. My daughter. I don’t dare call my daughter. She doesn’t want me to. She feels her joy at Robert’s safety crumple like a piece of paper in a fist. She sobs, staring at an alien lawn, at the roots of alien trees. Overhead white clouds pile and glide as the wind picks up strong.
Rain falls in curtains, twisting across the Thames. In yellow slickers men bend and haul, throw and pile sandbags in a levee six bags across and as high as they can make it. The thin yellow line, Janet thinks to herself. In a slicker of her own she stands on the RiverBus dock and watches a red lorry, heaped with sandbags, drive down the grey street toward the workers. Struggling with a bent umbrella Vi scurries to join her. Drops gleam in her pale blonde hair.
‘Dr. Richards tells me you got your red card.’
‘Yesterday morning, yeah. There apparently wasn’t any problem. Just the usual bureaucracy stuff. The guy who needed to sign the red card was on vacation. That’s all.’
‘Well, yeah. I’m glad, of course.’ Janet turns away to watch the men unloading the lorry. ‘I wasn’t looking forward to being deported and thrown in prison.’
‘We wouldn’t a let that happen. Me and the girls, we’d a thought of something. Hidden you out, y’know? here and there. There’s a lot of us, y’know, all over this bleeding island. Girls like me and Rach and Mary and the lot. We think you’re super, y’know, we really do, and we’re networked.’
‘Do you?’ For a moment Janet cannot speak. She recovers herself with a long swallow. ‘Thanks. I’m kind of glad I don’t have to take you up on that.’
‘Course not. It wouldn’t a been any fun.’ Vi grins, a twisted little smile. ‘But you’ve got the asylum, so it doesn’t matter, right?’
‘Right. But tell everyone I really appreciate it.’
‘I will, don’t worry. Look.’ Vi pauses for a glance round. ‘We’ve got the feed working. Is there anything you want us to search for?’
I could ask them to get Mandi’s number. I bet they could. Piece of cake, breaking into a military phone book. Yet she cannot ask, her mouth seems paralysed. What if they find the number, what if she calls only to have Mandi cut her off, what if Mandi makes it clear, undeniably once and for finally all that she never ever wants her mother to call again? Vi is waiting, smiling a little. Janet could ask her. They’d find the number, she and Harry.
‘Well, actually,’ Janet says. ‘What I really need is my notes and stuff, all my research banks. But the military confiscated my computer, I’m sure of that. If it’s not even plugged in, you won’t be able to reach it.’
‘Oh, I dunno. What if they downloaded everything to some central bank, like? I’ll bet they’re like the Inquisition was, filing everything away, keeping all the heresies nice and tidy.’
‘I never thought of that.’
‘But now, that’ll take us a while to figure out. I know, you start writing down everything you can remember, file names, codes, anything at all. That’ll give us something to match, like, if we find their central banks.’ Vi grins again. ‘And that’s what we’ll want, anyway, their central banks.’
‘Yeah, I just bet it is.’
‘And if you think of anything else, you just tell me, and we’ll see what we can do.’
‘I will, Vi. Thanks. Thanks a whole lot.’
But she knows now that she’ll never ask for Mandi’s number, knows that having it would be too great a temptation to call, to late one night break down and punch code only to hear her daughter hang up the handset as fast as she can.
‘Bleeding cold out here,’ Vi says. ‘Coming inside?’
‘In a minute.’
She hears the umbrella rustle, hears Vi walk a few steps off. The girl will wait, she supposes, until she decides to go in. Yellow slickers flapping, the workmen turn and swing, heaving the sandbags onto the levee. The Thames slides by, brown under a grey sky.
‘Riverrun,’ Janet says. ‘These fragments have I shored against my ruins.’
She turns and follows Vi inside.
Copyright Katharine Kerr 1995. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without the author’s permission, but you can link to it if you’d like.