Jeannie Van Rompaey

Extracts

Extract from Devil Face

Chapter Seven

The woman with red hair was shouting. She was so angry it was difficult to hear what she was saying, but Melinda caught the words, homeless, poll tax, Mrs. Thatcher, scroungers and those bloody communists, a hotchpotch of grievances all worthy of hate. As the angry woman passed Barnet, Mitchell and Stokes, the Estate Agency on Brixton Hill, she sent their board flying. As it was made of metal it clattered and clanged as it fell, adding its share of noise to the sound of the traffic. She dislodged the leaflets that had been wedged in it, tore them up and threw them away. They floated down the road, the breeze lifting them so that they soared upwards for a while like paper aeroplanes, cruised a little further, spun round and sank, landing on the pavement to be trodden underfoot or drifted on to the road to be run over by cars and lorries.

Dave came running out of the Estate Agency, picked up the sign and tried to retrieve some of the leaflets. When he saw Melinda he looked embarrassed but she walked straight by him without acknowledging him. Melinda had seen Dave but she didn’t attempt to help him pick up the papers. Rascal was tucked inside her anorak so it wouldn’t have been practical. Besides she didn’t want to help him. If she sympathised with anybody it was with the angry redheaded woman who seemed to have a beast of her own to contend with. Melinda stopped and bought a newspaper and some peppermints. As an afterthought, she bought a box of chocolates for Susan. Maybe they could eat them tonight while they watched the film. She waited at the stop for a bus to Clapham Common. Some days she liked to get out of Brixton to a place where no one knew her. Clapham Common was an ideal place for Rascal to have a good run and play with the rubber ring she had bought him.  When he was tired, she would sit on a bench and read the newspaper while he had a little nap. While she was waiting at the bus stop, a man with a plaster on his nose came out of the newsagents and did a double take when he saw Melinda. He stared at her, looked away, looked at her again. Melinda hated being stared at like that. She turned up her coat collar and adjusted her scarf. For the most part people seemed to have got used to her in Brixton and she wasn’t stared at as much as she used to be. She thought it was because of Rascal. They looked at him rather than her. But the man with the plaster over his nose stared at her in a strange way, as if he had seen her before. She turned away, feeling her anger rising. Her birthmark began to sweat.

Extract from Ascension, Book 1 of the Oasis Series

Chapter Seven: Mr. Suit

(according to Mercury)

I’ve never seen a non-mutant humanoid. Not in the flesh. Only in filmograms made before 2020. Until today that is. I suspect the other students here in Headculturedome are as amazed as I am to see him. There he stands on a raised plinth in the conference hall staring down at us. We stare back at him and see a humanoid with two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two arms and two legs. Dressed in a silver-grey suit, neatly pressed trousers, jacket to match and a pristine white shirt and purple tie, he reminds me of Daniel Craig as James Bond or a chat show host. Not a politician. The latter are usually tie-less, shirtsleeves turned up a bit to show that they are of the people and therefore for the people. Though no one is fooled. Think of Cameron or Obama. But this man – let’s call him Mr. Suit – makes no pretence of being one of us. No dumbing-down for this smoothie with his sleeked-back hair and chin held high. He’s a cut above us and makes sure we know it.

We’ve been instructed by auto-put to assemble here. A special visitor is to address us. And here he is. His slate-coloured eyes scrutinise each of us in turn as they sweep in a wide arc reminiscent of that long one-camera shot of Gene Kelly dancing in the rain. Maybe his eyes are mini-cameras. Implants. Recording our every expression, noting our body language. Even here in Headculturedome we are not privy to every new technological advance, so I have no idea if it is possible for humanoids to have camera implants in their eyes or not.

I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but I sense that as those steely eyes retrace their route, anti-clockwise, they linger a little longer on my face than on the others. The mini-cameras move on and swing back for another look. No doubt about it.  Mr Suit is focusing on me, little Mercury.

A shiver runs through my body. A cold sweat breaks out on my forehead. That reaction will no doubt be recorded too. Or at least noted.

What is Mr Suit planning? Who is he? What is his position in the hierarchy of Worldwideculture – above Ra, our three-headed CEO, or beneath him? I look at Kali but her face is a blank.

Since she lost her position as chief administrator of C55 and came here to be retrained, she’s been a different person. She has fallen into a kind of depression, unable to come to terms with the change of direction expected of her.

Mr. Suit has stopped his perusal of us and is making a speech. He speaks effortlessly, unlike our jerky efforts at communication. ‘Good evening, fellow humanoids,’ he says. ‘My name is John Smith and I’m delighted to have been invited to Headculturedome to see for myself the incredible progress you are making.’

Fellow humanoids? John Smith? He is a politician after all. He’s trying to show us that he is an egalitarian, down-to-earth guy, but I sense something patronising about his attitude as he continues to feed us the same old stuff, the same old Worldwideculture line, talking in clichés, about how we are all pulling together, working side by side to create a better world. Blah, blah, blah.

He is generous with his praise. ‘I am very impressed by your diligent and enthusiastic work and I thank you for that from the bottom of my heart.’

Smooth. Definitely a politician. Next thing I know he’ll be taking off his jacket and tie and rolling up his sleeves. Lulling us into a false sense of security, that’s what he’s doing, treating us as equals when we all know that, even among mutant humanoids, some are more equal than others.  Orwell knew what he was writing about in Animal Farm.

His voice drones on, uttering generalities. More of the same. Blah, blah, blah. I can’t help wondering what hidden agenda lurks at the back of Mr Suit’s mind or in the minds of the other non-mutant humanoids he represents, for surely he cannot be the only one. At times his voice wavers a little. His hands are never still and there is something in way he leans slightly away from us that suggests he’s not completely at ease. Not used to being in the company of mutants is my guess, as wary of us as we are of him. A wonder he doesn’t talk to us from behind shatterproof glass for protection, if not from bullets – no guns here – but from breathing the same air as us. We are different from him and, deep down, under that arrogant exterior, he is afraid of that difference.

Extract from After

2000

On the first day of the new millennium, I scanned the press releases online with particular attention to American newspapers, afraid of what I might read, but filled with a need to find out if anything out of the ordinary had happened. Contrary to prevalent fears, no airoplanes had fallen from the sky and, more to the point, no apocalyptic groups admitted to any of their members committing suicide at midnight as 1999 turned into the year 2000.

In spite of this seemingly good news, I am sorry to say that once the dawn of the new millennium had passed, I became less hopeful of finding our twins, alive or dead.

Alec had said that, as parents, we would know if our children were no longer alive and, although I hadn’t the courage to admit that outcome yet, I somehow knew I would never see them again. There was a hard lump, a tight knot, in the pit of my stomach that would not go away. That knot told me my children were not coming back.

 

One of the oddly disturbing consequences of the disappearance of the twins was the change of attitude toward me from colleagues and friends. A kind of silence fell whenever I entered the staff-room. It was clear that everyone was trying not to upset me. Even the one or two new members of staff who took up their posts after the Christmas holidays that first January must have been primed on how to behave towards me. Like everyone else, they kept their heads well down over the books they were marking, determined not to catch my eye. This uncanny silence prompted a strange response in me. It was as if I had no choice but to assume a solemn silence of my own. This refusal to catch my eye or talk about the forbidden subject was thus aided by my own complicity. As a result, silence became an integral part of my life. After a while it became my habit to venture into the staff-room only when absolutely necessary – to collect something from my locker or consult the notice board. I spent most breaks or free periods in the art room on my own. This came to be accepted as “something Sarah needed to do” and my absence did not seem problematical for anyone. Several of my colleagues I’d known for a long time, whom I counted as friends, Beth and Linda in particular, would occasionally put their heads round the art room door to see if I was all right.  Otherwise, all was silence.

Just as it was at home in Riverdene where I lived alone with my memories.  Friends rarely intruded, either by phone or in person, on what they considered my chosen solitude and I did not contact them. On the occasions when friends did call, I found myself resenting their solicitous concern. The way they spoke to me, voices full of phoney jollity as if I were an invalid it was their duty to cheer up, I found irritating. Even worse were the ones who spoke with quiet reverence, touching my arm as if to empathise with my distress, eyes wide with sympathy. They meant well. I knew that, but I did not want pity. I wanted anger and violence. Silence was preferable to this unbearable solicitousness. After a few minutes of their sympathetic questioning, I would gently extract myself, professing that there was something I had to attend to straight away and steer them politely out of the door.

Living for the most part in isolation, I was able to contain the private space inside, the space that contained my emotions. A psychoanalyst might have considered it unhealthy for me to lock up my feelings in that way and have encouraged me to talk to someone about the anguish I was experiencing. But words were not my medium. Paint was. Out of the silence that fell upon me after my children failed to return, I started to paint again with a kind of frenzied passion I had not known before. Dark, tortuous paintings emerged that I knew comprised some of the best work I had ever done. The best I will probably ever do. The aura of silence with which I had been surrounded, which in a way I had actively promoted, had created a carapace around me that would not be easily broken and my creativity flourished.

Alec did not come home and his emails, devoid of news, were reduced to one a day. I was grateful for that.

Beth, a colleague and friend who had known me for years, did manage to approach and ask me if I had been in touch with my parents. When I told her I had not, she tentatively suggested that reconciliation with them would surely be ‘a good thing’.

‘Good for whom?’ I asked.

She didn’t answer. Neither did she broach the subject again, but that didn’t prevent me from thinking about what she had said. Although the circumstances were completely different, my parents had known what it was like to lose a daughter and now their grandchildren had stopped visiting them too. I made up my mind to go and see them. If they refused to let me in, that was up to them.

Our first meeting went reasonably well. My parents did invite me in and offered me tea and cakes. The atmosphere was very formal. All three of us were aware that the slightest shift in tone could be fatal. The house had not changed, apart from having a lick of new paint on the walls. It still had that sanctimonious smell. The silver cross with the crucified Christ still hung above the mantelpiece. We didn’t ask each other any uncomfortable questions. They didn’t question me about Alec, the man with whom, according to them, I had been living in sin all these years, a ceremony in a registry office not counting as a real marriage. They did ask about Ben and Kate and I had the unenviable task of informing them that I had no idea where they were or what they were doing.

I didn’t share my thoughts with them about the probable outcome of their trip to the United States. They would have their own fears about what had happened to Kate and Ben. They said they would pray for them.

It was a short visit, but it would not be the last. It would not hurt me to keep in touch with them, even though I realized that Alec would continue not to be welcome. What had seemed an important principle to me all those years ago, my belief that it would not be right to associate with my parents because they refused to accept my husband, seemed irrelevant now. When I saw them again after all those years, I was shocked by their appearance. They both looked frail. I recognized that there would come a time, in the not too distant future, when they would need the practical help a daughter could provide. It was time for my concern for the vulnerable in our society to be directed toward my parents.

 

In March, Alec did come home but only for a week. He told me that he’d decided to take early retirement from the museum so that he could devote all his time to the search for Ben and Kate. He needed to fill in a few forms and get someone to witness his signature for his pension and then he’d go back to New York. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Who would have thought that this would be the way he would spend his well-earned retirement? He was as confident as ever that he would find our children, but seemed restless. I told him he didn’t need to worry about me. I was fine. He could go back to the States as soon as he liked. His face lit up with what looked remarkably like gratitude.

The night before he left an unfortunate thing happened. I was lying in bed, my back to him, when I felt his arm slip across me. His thin body pressed itself into the small of my back. I held my breath.

‘Sarah,’ he whispered, ‘You’re not asleep, are you?’

I felt obliged to turn and face him. Immediately, as if he’d planned this manoeuvre with military precision, he planted his lips on mine and began to make the familiar overtures from the past. My body transformed itself into a rigid block. My arms and legs stiffened. I could not respond.

Alec realized this soon enough and gave up. His rounded back curled away from me, acknowledging defeat. Silent tears poured down my cheeks as I remembered the passion we had once shared, passion I could no longer muster.

We didn’t mention the incident the next day but were particularly gentle with each other as we said our farewells.

On subsequent visits I made up a bed for him in one of the spare rooms.

 

 

When I look back on the day they left, that day at the end of August, nineteen hundred and ninety-nine, I cannot honestly say that I had a premonition that I would never see them again. It is only in retrospect that I remember that, amid the excitement of leaving, Ben held me close for a moment or two longer than was necessary and said the two words that keep reverberating through my mind.

Just two little words: ‘Goodbye Mum.’

Alec said, ‘don’t forget to ring the minute you arrive. Let us know where you are staying. Phone, email, keep in touch. See you at the end of September.’

We stood side by side, my husband and I, and watched them as they walked through the barrier into the departure lounge. They didn’t turn round or wave but just continued walking away from us.

And then they were gone.