Once, wanting to show just how detached from the world we had become (how extraordinary), we marshalled meagre arithmetic skills to calculate the time spent playing. This was in 1978 when Dad was drinking heavily; it seemed like a good time to collate the absences. The figure we arrived at exceeded 36 months. We could have tried to master more complex sums: how long, how often had I been Carlin? How long Vlad? For which fraction of a second had Starfire's cunning consciousness replaced Earth's reverie (or what appeared benign as reverie)? Too difficult, these fractions eluded us, who, from years of narrative habit, had learned to guess the subtle inflections of a given character's voice, and even the smile that touched it.
It is a fact that I always tired more quickly than you. On the second or third night of sequencing, caught up in some high melodrama, my mouth would go to sleep. Starfire is saying something to Ijlad, he walks across the room to stand in a patch of sunlight, his hack to the older man. My mouth shut, I reply quite by reflex, continuing the narrative in my head:
Vlad answers; as he does one hand nervously clasps the other. There is nothing inside him but tiredness and an almost compulsive tenderness. But there is a seductive quality to his weakness; it shows the stillness of the immortal inured to the thought of uninterrupted consciousness.
In the darkness of the opposite bed you have become impatient with my lengthening silence, you prompt:
Starfire looks out the open window to the garden; he's puzzled by the gardener who is, apparently, either attempting to destroy the traditional topiary or to revolutionise its permissible form ...page 158
This, obviously, is the Mad Carlin. The Mad Carlin has unleashed his dubious talents on the sumptuous gardens of the estate. Something, plainly, must he done. I am still not asleep, but neither am I awake enough to vocalise the reply:
The gardener is rattling away to himself as he attacks the hedges. Does this. . . ' he gestures toward the vegetation : . . represent hundreds of years of refined aesthetics on the part of the English upper classes? No! Not at all. No such luck! It's a blatant plot to trim the trees to suit the view, every home must have half Of one at least ... yeek! The ladder betrays me!' This last is screeched as the gardener, more interested in his soliloquy than his balance, collapses (followed by the ladder) onto the finely trimmed lawn.
'Hey! Have you gone to sleep?'
Sleeping? I thought I was doing rather well.
Vlad was a character well-suited to being narrated whilst asleep. Still sometimes, quite unconsciously, I resurrect him (or the reverse: he resurrects me) in my dreams.
In his dream, a stranger enters the room in which he is seated, writing, at his desk
beneath the window. The ink has stained his ling narrow fingers. He puts
down the pen, knitting his hands into a shallow steeple, and patiently waits for the
young woman to speak.
(But that's not all.)
When Elizabeth and I were young we used to speculate about what we'd do if we met our major characters in the street. Who would be more shocked? It was unimaginable, but a good thing to think about at the dinner table when Dad, drunk, was holding forth about the corrupting oppressiveness of female-dominated families. (I would be trying to swallow my food, working on getting at least one mouthful safely down into the relative quiet page 159 of my stomach.) We never did meet Carlin or Starfire or Vlad or Cassandra on the street. Hell! We didn't even meet real people!
Not a Normal Adolescence
This became something to say to friends at the pub when trying to explain why I'd (we'd) never had a boyfriend (not even one we didn't like). Cain was marked by God for slaying his brother (not a normal adolescence!). Sara and Elizabeth did not wear the mark of their difference, they slept in it: sharing a bedroom for 21 years. And we didn't get out much, except to work, and to the shops, and to the movies to collect plots and locations to fuel the drama of the Sequences. We did not make friends, except in the broadest, most creative sense. We made lasting friends of Carlin and Starfire.
I've just thought how typical (and yet unfair) it is that Carlin is the only person on Acturus waiting for Starfire. He's waiting, with inexhaustible patience (because its invention can never be revised) for somebody who pretends amnesia, who won't come home because home is a picture poorly drawn from a failing memory.
I, who am 28, have a failing memory. I no longer remember the names of Acturan countries, the state of religious and political conflict in Maryo, the names of the houses in which they lived, the shape of Veavane Bay. But the act of remembering was always already tenuous. I never knew what Carlin looked like—yes, I could give a description, iterate attributes; yet not conjure his face to mind. But that never reduced their presence, and the inability to remember facts, detail, only makes the absence of essence more apparent.
Carlin always did tend to get the last word. But it's Vlad I still listen for.
You said that Vlad wrote to Starfire: 'I feel like an empty theatre, or a broken movie projector, packed with the ghosts of images and words, the faces of long dead actors and actresses. Right now, here, I feel like a lost part of a child's puzzle put away after the holiday.'
The thing is, I do not know which of us wrote this. It could have been any of us. It could have been me, it could have been you. It might have been Starfire, inventing the object of his grieving. It might have been Vlad (the attribution, regardless, makes it his).page 160
Elizabeth, when was 'right now'? where was 'here'?
'1976. Sara begins to create other characters in the no-longer-secret game (though she has always contributed her fair share of incidental innocent bystanders, crowd scenes, accidents, geography and weather conditions) . . .'
Accidents, Geography and Weather Conditions
October 1983. It is drizzling and I am running up Devon Street. There is no wind, and the temperature is irritatingly lukewarm. There is nobody on the street, a solitary car is cautiously negotiating the central bend in the winding road and I turn my head as it passes, not wanting to be seen crying. This is a petty attempt at normality, I want to lie face down on the wet pavement, I want to mortify myself. I see her small, powerful hands (even in fists I love them). Ailsa, who will try to strangle my sister at the party that night, has finally tested my patience. It is all quite accidental: that we ever met, that I loved her, that I couldn't keep her while also keeping myself intact. It is an unfortunate accident that she never speaks to me again. I find, almost incidentally, that I continue to love her for the next seven years (though hardly exclusively).
Did it ever occur to you that while nearly every emotional need was satisfied by the imaginary game (by Starfire and Vlad in love, Carlin and Cassandra married, with a daughter etc), there were a few loose ends? My character Erzebet never did have a lover in a game in which the romance figured large. Why was that? I was good at love, yet she stayed single, exercising her frivolous wit, passing time. It is only now that I realise how much I wanted her to have a lover, but she was the only lesbian character in 12 years of imaginary game playing. And I couldn't invent anyone for her; after all, it took two to create lasting love affairs, even in the Game. Poor Erzebet. I lovingly narrated her past sexual indiscretions, described her languor, her beauty, her wealth. She became the last major character that I would invent, known as a good friend to Starfire, more loyal for being impervious to his sexual charm.
But back in 1983 (before October and the accidents of geography) there page 161 was a time when I didn't stay home much, when we never got time to play. I would come home at odd hours, with a hyperactive Ailsa in tow. And Leguama was invented, the third and last of the imaginary games I would play. Ailsa and Madeline took parts and we were amazed that they were 'literate' in narrative, that they didn't excuse themselves quickly to another room, another house, a hasty change of channels to comforting reason.
A young reporter is standing in front of a wall upon which months and years of political posters are pasted, inches thick. High on the wall is the photograph of two women in the uniform of the Liberation Army, they stand before the camera squinting into the noon day sun behind the cameraman's head. They are both dirty from combat; one is smiling broadly, her teeth a white gash in the dark of her face. She has her arm around the woman next to her, her hand cups one hip. Both are holding their AK47s, the unsmiling woman cradling hers like a baby. The Reporter is telling us:
'Rosa Gonzalez and Maria Maria Conchita Conchita Gottschalk were two of the People's finest soldiers. They had both ascended to the rank of Colonel in a phenomenal two years of jungle warfare, and have the respect of the factions in this most grim of political and economic battles for the survival of independent Leguama. This afternoon I had a chance to interview Colonel Gottschalk-the first such interview to be granted since the tragic death of her compadre Colonel Gonzalez. . .'
We see a jungle clearing in which stands a dilapidated house, before it scrawny chickens scratch at the packed yellow earth. The picture joggles up and down as the cameraman ascends the track toward the house; and then the reporter is before us again, gesturing toward the yard:
'This is the home to which Colonel Gottschalk has returned for a brief period before returning to combat. Here she has mourned the death of a friend and comrade in arms . . .'
When Colonel Gottschalk walks out of the dark of the house, she does not
squint into the sun. She does not want to be seen to be affected by it. She is wearing the legs of her fatigue pants rolled up to the knee and a faded, once black, singlet. The camera traces one drop of sweat as it runs across the raised veins and sinews of her forearm to drip off the end of a ragged-nailed finger. She and the Reporter stand together in the camera's eye:
MMCCG: I an named for my sister, Maria Conchita, who died before I was born. My parent's had their hearts set on calling me Maria Conchita, but they also had to keep my sister's name still living [she shrugs] so ...
Reporter: [visibly perplexed] Heh. I see. Tell me, how do you feel about the death of Colonel Gonzalez?
MMCCG: How do I feel? Me, I feel nothing. But my bed feels cold when I roll over at night and my gun is the only friend I have whose conversation I actually enjoy.
Reporter: So you think she'll be missed?
MMCCG: Oh, we won't lose the war, the earth will keep on turning—will dry up and blow away most likely—and we'll eat and drink and sleep but [she violently runs her hand through her cropped, dark hair] I will miss her, she kissed so well, even if her tongue was sometimes cold. And she made love like it was a matter of life and death, which, incidentally, it turned out to be ...
The Reporter has turned round to the cameraman, signalling a frantic 'cut' by drawing his finger across his throat. Nervously, he smiles at the woman before him.
MMCCG: You got some problem?
Reporter: Well, you have to understand that even the News at Ten has standards. We're not allowed to make—sexual allusions, if you see what I page 163 mean [signals camera to run again]—So, what would you say you were fighting for? What were the immediate motivations for yourself and Colonel Gonzalez?
MMCCG: Well, liberty, the overthrow of usurers; political equality—the usual things. And Rosa and me were particularly interested in being the best fighters around—hah! Better than the men, even! [She looks away from the reporter to the hills.] Rosa and I wanted to have a battalion of women, shit, we were fighting for a little bit of difference, you know? Once we'd become heroes and had cameras shoved into our faces and up our arses during the major battles it was clear that we were finally able to be ourselves, admit that the rumours on Democracy Wall were true. Sure, we used to get drunk and dance on tables; sure, we yelled poetry at the top of our voices; sure we were lovers, at home and on the field. I did those things, she did those things. We fought to be famous, to be able to do those things and say to the arsehole syndicated columnist from America: So what?
It is clear from her attitude that she knows the camera has been switched off. The Reporter has lowered the mike, and is waiting for her to finish.
MMCCG: One day I will be President, and I will have a statue of Rosa put up in every major city of this country. It will not be a huge statue, but it will be compelling. It will depict the scene of her death. You know, when she's just been shot all those times, and has fallen face first into the parched earth of the compound—the moment when I crouch beside her, and turn her over gently to kiss the blood from between her dusty lips, my hand on the hand that still clutches the gun. That will be our memorial, a tribute to her death and my long silence in the face of such indifference as yours—
She leans forward slightly at the waist and spits at the feet of the reporter before turning to walk back into the house. The young American watches the little pool of spit, like a miniature Aral Sea, drying inward from the rim.
So, what happens is that Sara leaves Ailsa and Rosa has to be killed off. The geography of the world shakes itself and changes: no more Leguama, just page 164 Wellington in the spring winds. Sara goes back to Ailsa and Ailsa then leaves her. This is curious and final, and everything is so severely changed that Sara can do nothing she used to do happily, she can't eat, she can't read, she can't play imaginary games in the room she still shares with her sister. All those stories of emotional telos, love triumphant at the end of the night as the lovers lie down together tired, unconscious of the past, of the future. And Sara listens to her sister sleep and would like to start the story over, like to change things here and there: Rosa doesn't really die (she was wearing a bullet-proof vest); thus Ailsa does not leave, she stays to say her lines. No. A grief-stricken Colonel Gottschalk leaves Leguama and crosses the border into the United States where she finds a basement apartment in the Barrios outside of Los Angeles. She starts a relationship with a temperamental punk musician called Esperanza Letitia Glass ('Hopey') who reminds her very much of Rosa, but without the gun.
No. Vlad, who has been writing poetry under a pseudonym, finds that his poetry has become famous—but the world, seeing only his work, has once again managed to overlook him. Discouraged, he walks down the beach at dawn in Veavane Bay in light not bright enough to see his own footprints. He walks into the sea to his waist, his chest, his neck, until, hippopotamus-like, only his eyes remain above the water.
No. Not at all. Time passes. Vlad dies the way Elizabeth fated he should, somewhere where I am not. Colonel Gottschalk finds a solid lobby for her presidency and devotes her time and money to patronage of the arts (neither am I there).
One hears all kinds of stories.
Everybody lies, I knew it, saw that it was an accepted mode of exchange, as if we were expected to take each others lies for food, like:
You will not die;
this is a game, a set of lessons
to learn by rote. You are loved; you are beautiful.
page 165 Someone has dreamed you, and waking, forgotten what they dreamed even that it was so.
That is why everything
is so propitious.
It must have been someone young who dreamed this;
someone who watched too much TV
and loved a tidy narrative
with beginning, middle, end,
Not what I wanted or believed, I could have scripted this
with more subtlety,
but no, there is hardly a market for subtlety
when the characters are rich, intelligent, beautiful