Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fractional short story, though part of ongoing novel project: 'Clapboard City'

Victoria Yarborough deposited another tray of buns in the oven and wiped her grimy face with the toreador-patterned handkerchief that she kept in the generous breast pocket of her smoke-stained off-white apron. She shut the oven doors, took several (of what would be) long loaves from Rab Ember, put them in the other big oven, and said ‘Alright, still. Time for a break, innit?’
           ‘A’righ’, Vicki.’ Rab grinned a wide-spaced, speckled grin and waved at her with his big brine-sheened hand. ‘Gonna go down the newsstands, I take it?’
            ‘Of course,’ Victoria said. ‘‘Sa new Prime Minister. Well…’ She paused and frowned and laughed. ‘An old Prime Minister, agin.’
            ‘What is it, third time?—fourth? I know ‘e’s served more ‘n wunst before.’
            ‘Third time,’ said Victoria. ‘I swear…feel’s like summat’s going to go horrible wrong quite soon in this country.—Well, it’s been four years. Baldwin’s going to have to go t’ the country again soon in any case.’
            She shrugged and walked out. It was useless discussing politics with Rab. He had a head for the lists of Prime Ministers and what they looked like and the common little facts about them but not much else. To be truthful, Victoria herself was not exactly a political genius either, though for lack of having the chance to rather than of being able, she thought. What she really liked, in the manner of finding interesting, was things like Boys’ Own tales of the great imperial wars. A more than passingly queer interest, she knew, for an East London baker’s girl to have. But the world wasn’t always going to be what it was now, was it? Some day, she knew, or thought she knew, or hoped she knew, all mankind from China to Peru would be laid out in the range of possibilities for her life before her.
            Victoria was twenty-one, and had been a baker’s girl here for five years, and liked it all right, or more than all right really on good days. Her wonderful old father, now up in one of those iron lungs with the polio he got on holiday down in Bournemouth, was Meade Yarborough, who had been a ship’s cook in the last years of her namesake and first years of old King Edward’s reign. So there was cooking, and there was war and adventure. Victoria really loved her father.
            Her mother had run out when Victoria was one year old and her brother Bill was five. This fact really angered Victoria and had done all her life. So, since Meade Yarborough would be laid abed all the rest of his life, her life was focussed solely now in the bakery, the old clapboard building thrown up near the riverbank just below the Isle of Dogs with its faded, formerly circus-bright primary-coloured sign.
A man came up behind Victoria on her right and cleared his throat at her. She turned. He was fairly short, only an inch or so taller than her, and dressed in strange red kit that made her wonder if he was Celestial or maybe some kind of African, in personal origin if clearly not in ancestry.
            ‘What is it, sir?’ Victoria asked.
            ‘Are you Victoria Meade Yarborough from Shoreditch,’ the man asked, ‘who works in this bakery here in Poplar?’
            ‘I’m from Limehouse, not Shoreditch,’ said Victoria. ‘My middle name is Alice.’
            ‘My apologies, Victoria Alice Yarborough,’ said the man. ‘In my country the form of your name that I quoted would be the correct one.’
            ‘How’s ‘at ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ then?’ asked Victoria. ‘That just isn’t my name.’
            Abruptly changing the subject, the man said, ‘Take this, Victoria Alice Yarborough, for the sake of going further in your destiny.’
            ‘Pardon?’ said Victoria, and the man handed her a slip of paper with a strange, clawlike hand. She thought he perhaps had some sort of weird disease. She took the slip of paper and looked at it. It had on it a crude picture of a telephone and a number that was much longer than any she had ever seen and didn’t have the name of a town or neighbourhood in front of it.
            ‘How’m I supposed to ring for a number like this?’ Victoria asked. ‘What is this?’
            ‘Merely make your way to a telephone to press the keys thereupon,’ said the man.
            Victoria was about to ask for further clarification when the man walked abruptly away and disappeared into an alley. Victoria went back to the bakery, asked for another twenty minutes for her break for reasons of her own affairs, got it, and went out looking for a pay-telephone. She found one standing on the bank of one of the tangled canals around where the River Lea flowed into Thames. It was a spindly device painted in chipping, rain-slicked paint the colour of mashed peas. Victoria fished around in her apron for a few farthings, jammed them into the telephone’s slot, and, taking the receiver off its hook, saw to her surprise that it had a pad of numbered buttons on it, very much unlike any telephone she had used before. She shrugged, balanced the paper on one of the horizontal surfaces of the kiosk, and determinedly dialled the eleven digits written out upon it.
            The call did not go to a normal human operator. Instead, she heard a phone ringing nearly a dozen times, then a click, then a somewhat unsettling deliberately casual voice saying, in a sonorous baritone and a particularly broad form of American English, ‘Hi, this is the office of Giles T. Schuster, United States Senator from Dothan, Alabama. If you have a constituent concern, please press…’
            Victoria growled. This did not strike her as legitimate, not in the least. The voice was obviously pre-recorded somehow or other, and the telephone was set up incredibly unusually. The whole thing was questionable in the extreme.
            She worked for another few hours and then took the ‘bus to the British Museum, where she spent quite some time in the Reading Room looking through almanacs and reference books about the United States until she found one with the heading ‘Senators Elected to the Seventy-fourth Congress (3 January 1935—3 January 1937)’. There it was, right at the top!
            {p. 29: United States Senate, states AL through ID} ALABAMA: John H[ollis] BANKHEAD, II. (Democratic Party, Class 2, Senator since 1931); Hugo [LaFayette] BLACK (Democratic Party, Class 3, Senator since 1927). ARIZONA: Henry F[ountain] ASHURT (Democratic Party, Class 1, Senator since 1912); Carl [Trumbull] HAYDEN (Democratic Party, Class 3, Senator since 1927). ARKANSAS: Joseph Taylor ROBINSON (Democratic Party (PARTY LEADER), Class 2, Senator since 1913); Hattie [Ophelia Wyatt] CARRAWAY (Democratic Party, Class 3, Senator since 1931). CALIFORNIA: Hiram [Warren] JOHNSON (Republican Party, Class 1, Senator since 1917); William G[ibbs] McADOO (Democratic Party, Class 3, Senator since 1933). COLORADO: Edward P[rentiss] COSTIGAN (Democratic Party, Class 2, Senator since 1931); Alva B[lanchard] ADAMS (Democratic Party, Class 3, Senator from 1923 to 1924 and again since 1933). CONNECTICUT: Francis [Thomas] MALONEY (Democratic Party, Class 1, Senator since 1935); Augustine LONERGAN (Democratic Party, Class 3, Senator since 1933). DELAWARE: John G[illis] TOWNSEND, Jr. (Republican Party, Class 1, Senator since 1929); Daniel O[ren] HASTINGS (Republican Party, Class 3, Senator since 1928). FLORIDA: Park [Monroe] TRAMMELL (Democratic Party, Class 1, Senator since 1917); Duncan U[pshaw] FLETCHER (Democratic Party, Class 3, Senator since 1909). GEORGIA: Richard [Brevard] RUSSELL, Jr. (Democratic Party, Class 2, Senator since 1933); Walter F[ranklin] GEORGE (Democratic Party, Class 3, Senator since 1922). IDAHO: William Edgar BORAH (Republican Party, Class 2, Senator since 1907); James P[inckney] POPE (Democratic Party, Class 3, Senator since 1933).
            All right, that was enough of that. Clearly the Democratic Party had an absolutely insane majority over there, and clearly what she had heard over the telephone was absolute rot. Nobody in here was named Schuster, from any state, AL through ID or otherwise. Victoria slammed Frobisher’s Gazetteer of the American Nations shut. She was angry and confused and somewhat frightened by how her day had gone so far.
            Victoria walked out of the British Museum when the sky was turning pink in the east, and turned her feet towards the river. She was aware that she had been acting very queerly to-day and that the others at Blixbury’s Bread and Buns probably were not very happy with her. If she hurried she could get back to Poplar before the bakery closed and tell Mr Blixbury how much she was sorry.
            Victoria walked to the river by way of Drury Lane and the Victoria Embankment (namesake the same as her namesake naturally), took a barge along the Thames to the eastern side of the Isle of Dogs and walked again from there. By this time most of the sky was pink or purple or some colour in between. The bakery was just closing up when she got there and rapped on the door.
            ‘Vicki?’ came the querulous voice of Fred Blixbury. ‘I thought you went home hours ago. It’s getting quite late.’
            ‘I di’n’t go home, Mr Blixbury, sir,’ Victoria said. The door opened and she went in. ‘My apologies, sir, for how I was actin’ earlier.’
            ‘We were worried about you,’ Mr Blixbury said in a lecturing tone.
            ‘I met a strange man,’ Victoria said, feeling a little ashamed of how she dealt with everything. ‘He gave me a telephone number, which I ca’d. I ca’d the phone of an American Senator who’s not real.’
            ‘What is that supposed to mean?’ asked Mr Blixbury. ‘Why did you do that?’
            ‘Said he was a Mr Schuster. The senator, not t’ strange man. There’s no Mr Schuster. I looked it up.’
            ‘But why did you talk to somebody so strange and call a telephone number based on what he said?’ Mr Blixbury asked, seeming oddly paternal especially by his standards.
            ‘Wasn’t any danger, innit,’ Victoria said. ‘Thought he was a Celestial or an African, maybe. Dressed real queer, you unnerstand. Jus’ thought it was interesting.’
            Mr Blixbury frowned. ‘Well, can you continue your investigations into the life that lies beyond the normal to hours when you are not working, in the future?’
            ‘Yes, Mr Blixbury. I am sorry, Mr Blixbury.’ She was. Victoria was not a person to say that she was sorry unless she was sorry, and really very sorry at that. ‘Y’ know…I tend t’ get bound quite up in my own little worlds, jus’ a bit. I don’t think it’s a dangerous world we live in, really, Mr Blixbury. I think there’s summat I don’t yet unnerstand, and I wanna unnerstand it ‘ecause if I don’t then I’ll spend my whole life sitting here, simply sitting, waiting.’
            Mr Blixbury looked a little angry, and a little hurt.
            ‘‘Sa good life,’ Victoria said quietly. ‘To be certain ‘sa good life here. And I have all intentions of coming back to it agin. But if I don’t see for myself I’ll never get a moment’s rest.’ She paused and looked at Mr Blixbury’s hands, folded on the counter on which both were leaning in a way that would have looked demure had his personality been different. The thumb of one was tracing tight circles over the back of the other, the same nervous tic that he had shown when his son Frederick Junior had been hauled up at the Old Bailey for ownership of his best pair of boots, which he had sworn up and down had fallen off of a rubbish lorry. Did Fred Blixbury see her, Victoria Yarborough, as something kin to a daughter? Rab Ember, to be sure, called her ‘baby sister’ enough.
            In that pea-soup city by the canals and docklands both of them, man and girl, wanted so badly to get out. Mr Blixbury wanted to get out and go in. He had set up shop here for a reason back then. He was in love with the version of this place that still persisted in his mind. Frederick Blixbury had been born in the days of Gladstone and immediately post-Disraeli. The world had changed; the man had not. In the person of Victoria Yarborough he had found a hope that there were people who had the destiny to obliterate Time. Mr Blixbury was not educated in philosophy and so this idea and this hope was inchoate and unspoken in his head but it was there. One day, that Vicki’s eyes would light across time and space and place the quotidian steadfastness of that dusty corner of the city with its streets named after spices shipped and canals cutting through docks and mills—that Vicki who was standing next to him drumming on the countertop and glancing furtively at a newspaper as if that were somehow wrong would take those things and set them up in the sea of stars.
            Victoria Yarborough thought of the appalling strangeness, to her strangely appealing, of the man who had talked to her on her lunch break. She doubted, in the second thought, that he was from Africa or China. She was aware, and it hurt her in her awareness, that she did not know what the world really was, beyond the obvious, or things she thought was obvious from her point of watching.
            ‘You don’t want to go nowhere,’ said Mr Blixbury.
            ‘‘S right,’ said Victoria.
            Mr Blixbury nodded and swallowed rather heavily. ‘I understand that,’ he said. ‘I understand that. Just—just be…’
            ‘Carefu’? I know, Mr Blixbury, don’t worry, I know.’ Victoria sighed and rapped the counter hard with the fingers of one hand, the other rolling into a loose fist. ‘That’s because, Mr Blixbury, there are things here that I want to take care of.’
            ‘Your father…’ Mr Blixbury wheezed. This conversation was taking a turn for the emotional and intense. In a way that he felt was pursuant to his generation he was not as comfortable with this as his baker’s-girl seemed to be. Victoria Yarborough seemingly had not known, until this conversation, that Fred Blixbury cared about her at all except as an employee. This made Mr Blixbury a little sad, but then he knew that he was not the most expressive man in the world.
            ‘I say you should go for it,’ Mr Blixbury said finally, as the sky purpled and blackened like a bruise and banks of cold silver fog drifted up off Thames and Lea. ‘For the sake of your father and for the other things you care about, Vicki.’
            ‘I’ll take that destiny,’ said Victoria. ‘If’n I meet that queer man again I will ask him what means what and then I will go on that basis into my future.’
            ‘Your father loves you so much,’ said Mr Blixbury. ‘I hope some day you’ll see why you have two dads, Victoria, even if your mum skipped out.’
            ‘I’m beginning t’ see that to-day,’ Victoria said, looking over her shoulder furtively out into the streetlamp-freckled darkness. ‘Thank’y, Mr Blixbury. An’ tell Rab thank’y, also.’
            ‘I will. You have a safe night, Vicki.’
            ‘You too,’ she said, and went out.

Victoria Yarborough saw the strange man for the second time three days after the first time, while making her way to the wholesaler for more white whole wheat flour. He was standing in the middle of the street, untroubled by the cars and trams. When he caught her eye he motioned to her and moved off in a questionable zigzag; she followed, once again reasoning that there was no immediate danger and if he went into an alleyway or something she could just as easily leave and go back. Victoria knew that her life instinct was a little queer. She had been told so many times—but so it went, she was who she was.
            ‘It’s ten degrees and getting colder down by Boulder Dam to-day!’ the man called[1]. He called it again and again as she followed him through the twisting streets of the area east of the City and west of Poplar and south of Limehouse and north of Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. Victoria was honestly getting angrier and angrier at this man and about this whole state of things.
            ‘Who are you, then?’ she called. ‘What d’ you want with me? You can jus’ tell me! I won’t spill any secrets or summat, if that’s worrying you.’
            ‘Oh, no,’ he called back behind him. ‘I am not worried at all, at all, at all! You are not worrisome to me.’
           She frowned. She followed him into the twists and curlicues of the streets and quays and squares of the City, the Square Mile, and that was where the real strangeness began again. Time, she felt, was falling apart around her; the bells of London Town were crashing in her ears. The sky above her was the colour of hot brass but stars alien to her memories of the countryside heavens were hanging whitely just as brilliantly as if the gold had been purest blue-black. She was supposed to be on Lombard Street but Lombard Street no longer seemed a street at all to look at it. It was just a series of holes in the air endlessly extended into a distance that was more urban as idea than city as place, a tangle of greyness and sharpness under the too-smooth gloss of the heavens. In that alleged street, beneath that alleged sky, she stood breathing heavily and casting her gaze around the changed body of the City for he whom she was chasing.
            ‘So, this place is a massive centre of mankind,’ came his voice over the telephone and telegraph wires and down the lines and points that as streets and squares presented themselves. ‘This is what the fleeting children are, gushed forth into and spread out through such a place as this?’
            Victoria shook her head. ‘I can’t talk to you ‘less I know where you are, sir,’ she said.
            ‘I am here,’ he said, and appeared under the heavens.
            Victoria narrowed her eyes. ‘What are you?’
            ‘I am a Lord of Xibalba.’
            ‘And wha’s a Lord of Xibalba when it’s at home, then?’
            ‘You fleeting children, humanity, are quite something,’ said that esteemed Red Lord in the illusion of air above.
            ‘Oh, for Jesu sake,’ said Victoria. ‘Look at summat like the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Jus’ really look at it. We look far too noble and interesting in it. I mean…watching it, you might be forgiven…for thinking ‘Oh, how noble, how divine, in apprehension how like a god!’ Most Noble and Worshipful Companies—coats of arms and cloth of gold and banners waving—seriously?’
            ‘In your fleetingness there is a nobility and dignity of fate,’ said the Red Lord, descending to the street in the form of a track across the city in the form of a winter wood whose cold and silence only the words of those two broke. ‘You are active, and squalid—but there we have an active and squalid nobility.’
            ‘You wanna know what the reality of this place you’ve come to and seem t’ be tempting me to accept myself as a leader or paramour of are?’ snapped Victoria[2]. ‘I’ll tell you good all right. Here’s the reality of what yer saying I’m the shining destiny of: War! Poverty, famine. Hate of the too-different and hate of the too-same. Pride and greed and envy and anger and laziness and gluttony and lust. Consumption in both meanings o’ the word. I like where I am, because the bakery protects me and lets me be near the people I care about.’
            ‘So tell me.’ The Red Lord kicked a stone across the street into the river that lay there in the form of the brook Thames or Isis, in a mass of theoretical hills. ‘Who are the people whom you care about if this is your impression of your own kind?’
            ‘As far as I care or concern,’ said Victoria, ‘I got two fathers and two brothers and a sister. Meade Yarborough’s my father by right of blood and Fred Blixbury my father by right of his actins, which are in that way. Bill Yarborough’s my blood brother and Rab Ember’s my brother by actin. And Minnie Wilkins is my sister because she’s young and she doesn’t really seem to know how the ovens work very well and so I have to give her some help. That’s the people I want to be with and protect.’
            ‘But one day, in order to maintain that protection, your being and will are going to have to blaze beyond this old city.’
            ‘I know that,’ said Victoria. She splayed a hand on her hip. ‘But first I want,’ she said, ‘to understand why. Why it is me, why it is doing whatever it is it’s doing.’
            The Red Lord changed the world. Around them was a shining city of the sort that Victoria’s imagination, bound up in pulp adventures and H.G. Wells in its conception of the future, would have projected on a point fifty or a hundred years hence. Everything was light metal and tempered glass, spanning thousands of feet of open sky above the ground below, on which the Square Mile still teemed but teemed in the manner of a backwater, something below the consideration of the garishly glistening new heights. Victoria felt incredibly ill-at-ease on every level she could think of. The Red Lord, the sly bastard, with his curved grasping hands and bland too-delicate face, looked comfortable at worst and at best ecstatic.
            ‘Is this the future I’m trying to protect or trying to do away with?’ Victoria asked.
            ‘This is not your world’s future.’
            ‘What are you doing?’ Victoria snapped. ‘I was in London a few minutes ago!’
            ‘You are still in London. This is a very normal part of London and a very normal place as places go.’
            ‘But you just said,’ said Victoria, stepping forward over fences of some incredibly light but strong metal to stand on the same platform of frosted glass as her interlocutor, ‘that this was not the future. And clearly this isn’t what London’s now unless huge parts to most of the whole city are invisible! If it’s that argument you’ll be going fer then I’m going to want to see some proof.’
            ‘Would this not in that case be proof?’
            ‘No. Because we were down in the streets and they weren’t streets. Unless this is some London that’s painted on itself, as a sort of…layered way of being.’
            ‘That,’ said the Red Lord, ‘is probably as close to correct as your vocabulary is willing to take you. Showing you these worlds I demonstrate that their preciousness is like unto the tiny motes in a glass of water standing in a sunbeam. There is a uniqueness, a character to them that is difficult to see if one spends one’s time in this existence assuming that…’
            ‘I’m going to have to cut you off, here,’ said Victoria, lifting her hand demurely between them. ‘You aren’t talking in ways that I can unnerstand and I don’t think yer going to start. I’ll educate myself, sir, if you’ll only tell me summat clear to start with, ‘stead of jus’ dancing around me like a vaudevillian wit claiming he’s serious.’
            ‘All right then. I’ll show you. A vision, to start with.’
            And he showed Victoria a vision. She found it profoundly disconcerting. While technically plausible, this flashing stereoscopic display of the ostensible future—as opposed to the alternative in which they now stood—had in it just enough ‘upward’ motion, if you will, and just barely not enough of the sadness and footsore wear and weariness of life in time and history that Victoria would have expected to strike her as somehow fake and make her feel like he was trying to make a monkey out of her in some subtle and unspecific way. To be fair, it did begin with a series of wars and slaughters that began some four or five years hence and continued on for a century or too, but after that it mostly quieted down, whereas from everything she knew of people and history this should be something that just happened, more or less often, as long as the redemption was still in motion and had not yet been made into a perfected house of…God? Something along those lines. People had gone around saying after the Great War that that had been so horrid that nobody could possibly want to do anything like that again but that was bollocks and claptrap and she wondered if they didn’t know that, really, deep down. This wasn’t quite as much bollocks and claptrap because even after the part of the vision where the Fifth Humankind Empire of Zauf defeated the Micosht Host and established a benevolent hegemon there were still conflicts of various kinds, but it still bothered her.
            ‘What is this that yer showing me?’ Victoria asked. ‘Yer…yer a Red Lord from the planet Xibalba. I’m getting all this but I can’t know what to do yet, forgive me—yer from Xibalba, in the galaxy that we’ll some day call M101.’
            ‘There’s two hundred and three planets in this galaxy with life,’ said Victoria. ‘Of those twenty had life originate on ‘em. There are maybe five times as many that humans could live on some day but we won’t get to all those thousand or so ‘cause so many are just too far away t’ be worth bothering with. In other parts of the universe life is arising or being extinguished all the time. Only maybe one star in a thousand million has life livin’ around it. But there are a lot of galaxies, and a lot of stars.’
            ‘You live a very long time. You are in the future, sort of—a sort of future, that is, not that yer only sort of in it. You have a lot of power but try not to butt into others’ affairs. But yer meaning of butting in’s different from the way a human would unnerstand it by a long shot. And you liked the Mayans or the Aztecs or somebody, back when they were around.’
            ‘The Mayans, yes. And we did not ‘like’ them as you would understand like for a people or culture or area.’
            ‘That worries me,’ said Victoria. ‘I will do my work an’ research on these matters on my own, sir. Mark my words I will, not to spite you but ‘cause I’m seeking, here, at last, not to be unnerstood in the world but to unnerstand it. And that’s jus’ ‘cause…there’s a lot more world than I thought.’

[1] ‘Ten Degrees and Getting Colder’ had not, at this point, actually been written ‘yet’ as a human would understand the being-in-time of ‘yet’.
[2] She meant ‘paragon’, in the sense of a positive exemplar.

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