Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Katherine Barley took a moment to admire herself in the full length mahagony mirror in the hall. She fastened the top button of her frock coat, brushed a sliver of ash from her bell bottoms and, ajusting her cap to a suitably rakish angle, braved her first step into the frigid streets of Knightsbridge in June.

The choking ash from the Icelandic eruptions, which had driven that hardy people into exile over three years before, drifted down all around her like ghostly snow on christmas day. There seemed no end to the permanant gloom, although the more optimistic natural philosophers still held to the opinion that the ordeal must end soon. The catastrophic failure of three successive harvests in the blighted northern hemisphere had cut a swathe through man's arrogant presumption of civilisation and were it not for the bounty of her benificent Empire, England surely would have starved. As it was the peasantry of France begged for crusts at Spain's fortified borders and whole towns in Russia were white with gnawed bones. The growing industrial might of the newly united Germany had stilled the iron claw of famine at its throat for a year longer but her lack of a navy or sun blessed foriegn dominions had lately exhausted her attempts to see the crisis through.

Katherine's friend L, a refugee from the Icelandic melts, had brought their two horse carridge round to the front of the house. It was all the more important to keep up appearances when no-one was watching. When the Prince Regent had died of asthma brought on by the first of the falls a long line of noble carriages had followed his cortege with few but their footman aware they were empty inside. Thanks to the tireless navigations of her majesties merchant navy, every ship carrying food to the motherland had ferried refugees back to the Antipodes or the cape. England's five and twenty million was but a tenth of that now. Katherine had chosen to stay, if England was to die she would share her grave she told herself, but in truth her motivations were mixed. The loss of so many of the first wave of ships to the revived pirates of the Barbary Shore had decimated the ranks of the landed gentry and new industrial class alike. Their distant relatives on foriegn shores, or panicking creditors packing their trunks back home, were all too happy to liquidise their new found assets for a song. Katherine found herself the owner of a string of properties in London's most sought after districts and estates in Scotland she'd never heard pronounced, let alone seen. She was gambling on living through this, but what else was there to do?

L whipped up the horses and they clopped over the cobbles. L was accustuomed to the cold of course but Katherine still found it strange. It was like a permanant October of a particurly cheerless kind. The white shroud of pumice, blasted high into the stratosphere to carpet the northern latitudes, reflected the sun's energy uselessly into space, she'd heard, while the dust caused the rains to fall impotently into the sea. Potable water was now rarer than champagne, they would all die of thirst before they ran out of tinned oysters.

The party was being held, with a stunning lack of imagination, at the main dinosaur hall in the Natural History museum. As the parties dwindled in number and attendance so they increased in debauchary and L had wondered if they were still fit for their company. Katherine, who required no want of competition to stand out in any crowd, regarded them as mere opportunities to conduct business. A deal made with someone with his trousers around his ankles was seldom struck to her disadvantage. L kept a wary eye out for the packs of abandoned dogs which had posed such a threat after the first mass evacuations. Though a brief, bloody campaign by the Inland Militia had put paid to the worst of them, as they had to the rioters and looters, one couldn't be too careful.

They clipped past the Palace. The Royal Family were safely ensconsed in Bermuda where what was left of the Navy sheltered them from the American hordes. The windows were boarded, the stumps cut eight feet up, tracing the line of last winter's snow. Katherine tried to remember the feel of the sun on her face, the sparkle of light in the first leaves of spring, even bird song. She couldn't really do it. She'd either adapted entirely to this situation, in which case she was saved, or surrendered to it, in which case she was doomed. She ajusted the silk bandana protecting her
nose and mouth and thought of nothing. The hooves of the horses were stilled in the feathery ash, though the grit was so engrained in their skins it was almost impossible to feel clean. She remembered how the first sunsets, before news of the eruptions had reached them, had been so beautiful. The first sprinking of the dust which was to obliterate the sun had painted the sky in a cornflower riot of colour. Now there was only shades of black and grey and brown. Even L's blonde hair was washed of all colour. Even the blue of her eyes was lost in the sepulchre of London. The Thames frothed with pumice. She squeezed L's cold hand.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Katherine hauled at the heavy controls. The hydraulics, older than her and almost as well traveled, creaked like a rack then groaned like the sinner upon it but, eventually, responded however grudgingly. She was doing the work of four men but that, at least, she was used to. She sat back, sweating in a shirt two sizes too big. Though the tank was ridiculously heavy, pathetically underarmed and dangerously ill armoured, the driver’s seat remained surprisingly comfy. Sometimes she wondered if Rolls Royce wouldn't have been better advised to go into the luxury cars market.

She halted the lumbering leviathan and risked a peak through the turret. A line of abandoned cars had been trashed and smoke still curled from a few shattered windows but all in all the gentrification was proceeding apace. A movement caught her eye for a moment, her trigger finger tensed then relaxed as, pleased as punch, a crow hopped with its prize into the sturdy lower branches of a bizarrely intact tree. The sun flashed on the wedding ring on the mangled, severed hand. Katherine slipped back down and kicked the engine into gear. Clouds of black diesel belched out the back and she trundled on down Downing Street. In her experience the future was routinely underrated.

At School by the Sea

She’d been at the school for two terms now, with a reputation for being a loner when in truth she was simply alone. Perhaps it was best. Girl cliques can turn on one of the own like sharks with the scent of blood in the water. Some girls would betray all their friends to be the most popular girl in the school. Katherine’s only choice was vilification for copying the others, in a vain attempt to fit in, or ostracism for being herself. Alone in the dorm, she flicked through her diary for the new year, tearing out all the information save the phases of the moon.

She slipped through the woods and took the off limits path to the cliff tops. She clambered down the sandstone blocks, the cliff fortifications so eroded that it was hard to swear where the sport of nature ended and the work of man began. She was relieved to find her favourite cubby hole free of courting couples, glue sniffing pre teens or self pleasuring tramps. Framed by the embrace of the sheer crags around here, the sea lay like before her like a millionaire’s private movie screen. The wash and boom of the waves, a dizzying leap below her, churned in Dolby stereo sound. Impossibly ugly container vessels, long having abandoned any attempt at being ships, clopped along the horizon. A few gulls wheeled and clamoured, though they no longer nested here. She clutched a book as she always did, but seldom cracked its pages. The sea here knew everything she needed to know.

There was more though, sweet as it was in the last of the sunshine, she longed for the first of the autumn gales. She would stand here, the wind slapping her face like a mother, giving herself to the elements, the weather and the iron in the rain. She’d been taught that every drop of water on earth had been brought here by comets, plunging to the steaming planet in its infancy. Every drop of rain, every slash of spray, dreamt of comets from the furthest reaches of the heliosphere. A rain of destruction had brought life to the world. There was always hope. All she had to do was find a way to hang on. Everything would turn up in time, where else was it going to be?

Dead Ground

In the final year of the plague she asked if her child, although illegitimate, could be quietly interred in the church grounds if its time came. She was motivated less by the shreds of her faith than the cherry blossom on the last tree left in the churning mud. Her request was denied on the grounds of long standing tradition so she buried the child herself with the last of her strength, clawing the stony ground with bloodied fingers. The Cossacks gazed down, on the crag above the convent, sat on their squat, pig eyed ponies. It was beneath their dignity to rape her again.

Katherine wept as she piled stones over the frail, twisted body in a vain effort to keep the dogs at bay. She wept for this child and all those she had left by the roadside. She threw herself over the grave and shivered herself to sleep, cheating the carrion crows, but when she dragged herself back to her feet they were waiting.

She walked down the hill, without looking back, into the trees where the ground was soft as carpet to her heels bare and sore. She slipped through the gates, hanging off their hinges at the Convent and pushed through the leaf littered cloisters. The sores on her arms were beginning to flower. She coughed and swallowed the blood that bubbled in her throat and then spat out her lungs in her hand. She lay in the courtyard and stared up into a sky as pitted and brown as her eyes.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


They strolled on through the gardens, arm in arm to preclude any chance of a stray brush of hands. The folds of her full length long black crinoline dress whispered against the high laced boots she still affected. She wasn't quite yet ready to surrender to her age. Old men played chess with strangers beneath the elms. It is impossible to beat, or be beaten by friends over time and remain friends. If she glanced to her right she knew she'd see the sky was clearing, but over her left shoulder the clouds were dark as iron with rain.

Given a choice between friends and lovers, she'd always plumped for the former. Comradeship lasted longer than passion and, when she let them down in the end as she inevitably must, the pain though sharp as ever, didn't cut to the heart. She thought of herself as a good person, she couldn't help it, but her choices were catching up with her now. In this, if in nothing else, she knew herself less than exceptional. From her times in prisons, on slave ships, with the whip in her hand or lashed to the oar, she'd never met anyone who thought of themselves otherwise. Every rapist thought the girl was asking for it, every thief that the victim deserved to be robbed or somehow, bizarrely, just didn't exist. Every traitor had a moral rationale for his betrayal and rehearsed it to himself as he counted his gold. She wondered if her fondness for the company of L and her other friends in her youth, long gone but still sweetly remembered, was not in some way born of this. The gentle, furtive acts they perfected or blundered into could be seen by one as the ultimate expression of love and love making and the other as simply messing around. Her fulfillment was found in what others, in other circumstances, would dismiss as mere idle foreplay. The girls could dismiss it a childish games if they wanted, at least later on, and she too could cast it aside when the pull of the time streams tugged her rootless body away. In the final analysis most people's lives are tinged with tedium and their loves are much the same. We all have our moments, she mused, but few escape regression to the mean.

All in all, she was glad she'd opted for the quiet life this time around. An unlived life may not be worth examining but too much experience drains too much out of you. Quite why she'd married a Russian, particularly this Russian, was a mystery best forgotten. Their attraction had never been attraction per se, she was no stranger to that despite all appearances, it was more attritional somehow and to her chagrin and relief she'd succumbed. Alexi Markov fingered the brown paper package in his hand. A devotee of every second hand bookshop in town, he loved the feel of books beyond their contents. He spent hours admiring the heft of the leather bound volumes, crowding the shelves in the firelight, while she sat reading or staring into the flames.

Tiring of the clump of the mechanical stilts of the motorpedes on the roadway and the clatter of the Gentleman's Ornithopters overhead, they stopped for tea in Regents Park before returning to their town house. With the boys both off at boarding school there was no hurry to return. Despite the stern public notices warning patrons off such behaviour, she fed crumbs of seedcake to the fat, waddling pigeons. Once driven to extinction on their native isle by the pigs and the rats and the clubs of visiting sailors, a few stray sailors amusements had thrived in the botanical gardens of England and France. Some kept them as pets though, in truth, their smelly habits and querulous squabbling made them less than ideal in the house. She patted a Quagga, quietly cropping the verge, as the howls of the Thylacines carried over the limes. She was content, if not exactly happy. England had fallen without firing a shot. The last of her battleships rusting in port. It was hard to see how things could ever be otherwise.

The blood in my mouth tastes of you

Strapped dirty and naked to the rough hewn torture table, still damp with the fluids of the last to lay here, she cricked her neck to eye the transformer with contempt. The barbed electrodes, clipped harshly to all the usual spots, bit pleasingly into her flesh, the well defined discomfort a distraction from the torment to come. From deep within she tried to summon the rage she'd need to survive this.

Markov motioned to the serge uniformed girl standing by the devices. Her dark hair had been cut with blunt scissors. She avoided Katherine's eye as she dialed up the voltage. Katherine liked her oversize cap. It confirmed the absurdity of the current situation although irony would be little use to her here. She closed her eyes and then opened them again to fix on the ceiling, pretending it showed the stars. She bit her lip as if to complete the circuit and she was wracked with broiling, churning pain. She blinked rapidly, her only concession, and tried to tell herself she'd paid for worse than this before now.

She tried to breathe, her lungs filled with blood. She smelt her own flesh burning. Markov stroked her lithe, writhing belly and she stared at him, that was really going too far. She spat at him but her spittle described a pathetic arc like a doomed sattalite to land on her ribs and did nothing to cool her. Markov withdrew, still there were no questions. What did they want from her? All her comrades were dead, their brutalised corpses trucked round the villages to be exhibited in the squares as an example to others. Her brothers in the forest skulked in their holes, waiting for the planes from Britain and America they knew in their hearts would never come. She counted down the seconds but there was no end to her torment. She strained, suddenly panicking, at the thick leather straps pinning her wrists and ankles, then at the collar round her neck. She stared, wild eyed now, round the room. Markov and the girl were gone, the iron door closed behind them. She could smell her flesh burning. Smoke began to curl from the buzzing apparatus. She spasmed once more, in frustration with so much more than this. Her urine flowed helplessly. She lay back for the rest of the ride.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The last night on the liner

Imagine this, she said, stroking a stray lock of her long flaxen hair, imagine this.

You're a third class passenger on a cruise ship. You have no say over its direction of course, there is no captain, but you're on a fantastic voyage and everything's so exciting till you realise you're confined to your cabin. You press your nose to the porthole, glimpse the sun, sparkling on the waters, sailing ships in the distance, exotic ports even but the more you strain to use your imagination to fill in the gaps the more your state's driving you mad. What's worse is you don't know if everyone's at some wonderful party or they're locked in their cabins just like you.

So, you have time on your hands, you are not unintelligent. You fashion a key, from whatever is at hand. Somehow you find that easy, maybe that's your one talent or no-one else even ever tried before, too busy drinking tea and eating biscuits, who knows. And finally you hold the key. The key that will not only unlock your cabin and set you free but perhaps unlock everyone else's cabin too. You don't want to steal anything, you're not a thief, you don't want anything, just to catch a glimpse of how other people live. The chance to talk to someone, anyone new. There's no thought in your head you won't return to your cabin. You're not unhappy there, anymore than you plan to run away to India when you go up on the train to the lakes for a day.

Anyway, you make your key and you're fool enough to try it and sure enough it unlocks your door but you step out and instead of finding yourself in a corridor, free to venture a little up or down at your own pace, in your own way, and the next cabin up had been your only intention, well you find yourself..this is hard to explain...You find yourself stepping into every room at once. Only it's always a slightly different you. And you're aware you've been...splintered, not splintered, you're like twins, free, and whole and individual but also linked inextricably. If you'd been separated at birth and met years later you'd have the same hair, the same type of dog and if that never happened and she died on the other side of the world somehow you'd know, even if you didn't know her name.

So you step out of your tiny, dreary cabin into everyone else's cabin at once, but more, into every port the ship has visited, every ship there's ever been, every possible ship on every possible ocean. Something wonderful has happened, but something went terribly wrong. And, well, you find the key broke in the lock as you turned it. It's stuck there, you can't get back. You can't even make another key, that was only possible in that cabin, at that time, only that version of you could have done it. You can no more cut another key than walk on the water, only you can sometimes, by accident maybe, you can sometimes find yourself on a corridor, lost in the bowels of the boat with all the lights blown, you can fumble through another door. You're changed now, it's like losing you...never mind. You can't meet yourself there mind but, well, pretty nearly. It's easiest to wander into a cabin you've just left somehow, another you, your things are everywhere, if you look everything but a letter.

And, so, what do you do? You have nowhere to go because you're everywhere at once, but still you must keep looking. There has to be a purpose for this, even if it's only one you imagine for yourself. Only that can save you from the..insanity which stalks you. You have made a terrible mistake but if you do the right thing, if you all can do the right thing perhaps there can be some hope of ...restitution.

Ellie stirred beside her. Katherine was aghast. She had assumed she was soundly asleep. Ellie was willowy, athletic even in sleep grunted like a baby.
Nothing babe, she stroked her hair one last time, go back to sleep.
Ellie grunted and turned over. The stately liner chugged on into the diamond arctic night.

Tickets for the fortieth anniversary cruise had proved hard to find but she had, after all, after all this time, certain connections. The magnificent ship had symbolised all that was truly splendid about the long Edwardian era and she wouldn't miss its last voyage for the world. This world at any rate. Its elaborate radiography device chittered above them, steering safe passage through the icebergs. It seemed certain the interglacial really was ending this time, after all these years of false alarms in the yellow press. The glaciers were demonstrably on the march again, not just in Norway and Iceland but throughout the Empire from New Zealand and Pakistan. Some said, the usual posse of shrill, attention seeking alarmists she hoped, they'd make it down to Derby again.

Katherine decided to go for a last stroll along the quarter deck and slipped out of the single bunk, careful not to disturb her friend. Her own bunk lay pristine but she was restless now. If she wanted to chunter, she should do it to the stars, where it could do no harm. Katherine slipped out of the cabin. She took her heavy sweater after leaving L's draped over the writing desk. There was a note there with clear simple instructions. The iron door clicked.

Ljósadís opened her eyes. She glanced at her watch. She pulled her boots on.