A Son of the Rock
the novel by Jack Deighton
(A Space Libretto)
As I look in the mirror at features rendered beyond familiarity by constant scrutiny, I question just what it was about him that was so shocking. He was only an old man after all. But at the time I'd never met anyone who looked old; I couldn't have known what to expect. Now I see at least one example every day.
It wasn't that he seemed strange, though he did; or different, which he was. It was because, to my culture-adapted eye, he looked wrong, inhuman, ugly. Nothing I'd encountered in my short life up to then could have prepared me for that.
At this distance, in time and experience as much as place, it's hard to remember how unusual he was. But every time I'm sipping down raki, thinking about Home, back come the memories of his unbelievable face and voice; and my mind brims with thoughts of Sile, forever young and beautiful.
Not the Hills of Home
Chapter 1. Don't You (Forget About Me)
I remember the first time we really talked, when it was still relatively good; before Sile discovered what I'd just done, how badly I'd let her, and Sonny, down.
I hadn't wanted to broach the subject. Hell, I'd suppressed the memory for over half a young lifetime, hoping it would go away. It wasn't something you could broach delicately, and let's face it, I was scared. I didn't know what her reaction might be.
We were in the cramped cabin at the foot of Roodsland Quarry - bed, chair, sink, mirror, chemical loo in the doored recess off, rickety drobe leaning-to equally rickety thin partition wall, sound of some brash recorded VT entertainment or other from the communal viewing tank next door coming through loud and exceedingly clear. I was perched on the edge of the chair - I wanted some distance between us for this, but not too much - Sile sat on the bed, listening.
Ludicrously, considering the intruding noise, I was whispering. But then everything we did in that hut was done quietly. Everything.
I'd recently been putting a foot or two wrong (just little things: like us being there in that cabin in the first place) and I didn't want to lose her. But I owed her some explanation. I didn't know at the time it wasn't for any lack of candour but for my sins of commission that she would hold me to account. So, reluctantly and haltingly, I laid it out for her. My dark secret.
"I was seven years old when my grandmother was taken," I said. "And all I was left with were memories. She'd spent her adult life on Home, lived nearby, and had kept up a close relationship with my mother, even after Mum set up her unusual menage with my father. Gran was for ever round the house, helping out, baby-sitting and so on. There was a great physical resemblance between them - you sometimes get that between mother and daughter - they had the same full face with high cheekbones, the same smiling blue eyes, the delicate mouth with upper lip that pulled down when they talked, making the nose move in an attractive way. They might almost have been twins. Some people couldn't have told them apart, except that they cut their hair differently.
"Gran quite often stayed over, so I didn't think much of it when one of her visits was longer than usual, even though she'd spent the last few days closeted away. I'd just got in from school - they're strict about that on Home, none of this accessing Edunet from your own little terminal; socialising with your peer group was a must for deprived two-parent kids like me.
"I'd passed a green and white hovervan outside, with small lettering declaring it to be from the 'Elder Hospice' - but at the time I had no idea what that meant."
I paused to assess the effect my story was having on Sile but she just regarded me attentively from the bed, legs crossed under her, hands resting between her knees.
"The house seemed full of strangers," I went on, "patrol procs from the local coronal's office making numberless enquiries, Hospice employees in white trimsuits, a couple of medics with those medpouches they always carry, clasped as if to let go would strip them of their mystique - all talking in hushed tones. Mum and Dad were like zombies; ashen-faced, wooden. It was the first time I became aware of them as less than omnipotent. They might have been sleep-walking, they were so incapable. Anyone asking them a question had to repeat it two or three times before they seemed to understand. After I'd been told to run along, my questions brushed aside, I was totally ignored: everyone was too preoccupied to concern themselves with me.
"I went into Sis's room to see if she knew anything, but she was as much in the dark as I was, and soon chased me out. I hung around for a while, upset at the disruption to my routine, perturbed by my exclusion from the disturbance around me, a bit resentful at having to mumble excuses whenever I got under someone's feet in what had previously been my domain. After a while the medics' confab ended, they went away along with the procs, and a woman in a blue trimsuit embroidered with yellow - she had blonde hair in the stacked style that was fashionable at the time - produced a thumbpad, got my mother's assent and started issuing orders."
I sighed, then; got up from the chair and started to pace the small area of floor. Sile leaned back on the bed, taking her torso's weight on outstretched arms, breasts bulging her Titefit, distorting the image it depicted of some feral animal suckling a pair of human babies. I was reminded of the strange fascination her father had bestowed on her, matching her exotically spelled name. I'd long got used to calling her, "Sheila," though. Her gaze followed me about the room, drawing out the rest of my story.
"A posse of Hospice workers entered Gran's room along with Mum," I went on. "There was a muffled conversation, followed by a voice that sounded like Gran's, but thinner, wailing, 'No. No.' Mum came out and stood with her back pressed to the wall, eyes closed, head bent upwards to rest gently against the support. She was crying. The blue-suited blonde reappeared and, catching sight of me, said 'Clear the child, this won't take long.' Dad hustled me into the nearest room. There was the sound of feet passing, the drilling of wheels on concrete. The last view I had of Gran was snatched through the window. All I could see was a pathetic bundle, obscured from view by Hospice coverlets, being trundled into the hovervan before it sped off."
I could sense Sile had guessed, but she wanted confirmation. "What was wrong?" she asked. "Was she just ill or...?
I hesitated. "She had that genetic fault," I said, watching her carefully. "The one that meant she had a reaction to Euthuol. She'd had less than half her expected lifetime, and she'd aged prematurely, in only a few days. She was faced with senility, and a life of isolation, at an age when everyone else is still vigorous and active."
"Oh Alan, I'm sorry." Sile stood up, put her hand on my arm. I hugged her tightly, not really wanting to let go, but I'd repressed this for so long that now I'd started talking about it I couldn't stop. I stood back a little, arms still round her, hers resting gently on mine.
"It was as if she'd had a premonition about it," I continued. "She was always staring into mirrors, checking her appearance - that's where I picked up the habit - looking for those first fatal flaws, the wrinkles round the eyes, the tell-tale flecks of grey in the hair, the cut or bruise that won't heal quickly, that mean the end of normal life and the social death that comes before the body's.
"I kept asking if she had died, in an accident or something; and when I was told she'd had to go away, it was best if I didn't see her again, she wouldn't want that, I took it badly. Gran had been such a fixture in my life that I couldn't understand her sudden absence.
"She used to take me off my parent's hands when I was very young, going for 'walks' - she walked, I was conveyed in buggies of one sort or another - and she would point out and name the bits of indigenous wildlife that graced the neighbourhood, things like Homebirds, hammertits, coarsegrass, pantaloon trees, yellowleafs, redhearts, the cotton-easter which draped its white wisps over the scrubby hillsides every spring, quickrabbits, spiderflies, even the occasional batfox, as well as the gengineered Homewheat, Sturdicows and Geep that inhabited the surrounding farmland. Home isn't very heavily populated, and not all that mineral-rich, its land use tends to be varied. There are even some conservation areas where the original landscape has been left intact - the tourist income makes a large contribution to the Gross Planetary Product. You'll like it when we get there."
"Is that a promise?" Sile asked, probably trying to distract me.
"Yes," I said. Her response had been better than I'd expected, she hadn't drawn back at all, and I felt easier. The words flowed.
"When I was older I was given one of those old-fashioned pedal cycles - 'for the exercise' - and Gran took me further afield. We'd visit the huge excavation which was my father's responsibility, move among the monstrous wonder of the machines, alert to the danger of the juggernauts, darting on and off the paths they'd worn. I used to pretend they were dragons and that I had to protect her from them; joust with them with my cycle as a trusty steed, keep her out of their way, save her for a long life. It's strange, and I know that I must be wrong, but somehow nothing I've come across since compares with my memory of Dad's quarry. What I saw a few days ago at the Hole seems tiny beside the pictures I hold in my head from my youth. And Paczai wasn't as good a companion as Gran.
"She took me and Sis on day trips to see the sights; to adventure parks, Wildlife zones, out boating on the lake that was only a few kayem away, swimming in the sea. My parents did too, of course, when they could, but there was something more carefree about those days with Gran; I could just be myself, I wasn't burdened with the expectations and demands of my parents, the constraints they placed on my behaviour. Don't get me wrong, they weren't harsh or anything like that; it was just part of me felt stifled when they were around. I repressed aspects of my personality that I didn't feel I had to when I was with Gran." Sile nodded in agreement at this. I guess she'd had much the same experience.
"I remember the first time she took us hill-walking," I said, "stumbling over rocky outcrops, through brush and low lying shrubs. There were some long low crags overlooking the town, naturally terraced affairs like giant steps, tailing away into the promontory which housed Dad's quarry. From the top you could see right down to where the sluggish estuary widened out into the sea, and along the valley of a faster flowing river to Squat Thrust, the local landmark which dominated the lake it sprang from; a broad, shouldered peak looking, from a distance, like two smoothed off regular trapeziums, the smaller symmetrically capping the other.
"It was an easy walk along the ridge to the quarry's rim, and I can see us yet, staring out over the edge like reluctant bathers at the sea-shore, safely elevated from the mysterious toings and froings of my imagined adversaries, those excavators which were scaled down now, made less fearsome by their apparent smallness.
"Perspective's a funny thing. It's a long time since I've thought about any of this; but being with Sonny yesterday, staring into that quarry up there, brought it all back. It might almost have been Gran I made the promise to."
"So what happened?" Sile asked.
"You know. I told him what he - and you - wanted to hear."
"Not that. I meant with your grandmother."
"Oh. Finally she died. It wasn't long after. I found out later she'd wasted away - refused to eat for a time, before they force fed her - but she'd lost the will to live. The one thing Orth culture holds out as a universal benefit had been stripped from her without warning, so I guess it's not so surprising.
"They still wouldn't let me see her. The coffin lid was nailed down tight so all I could say goodbye to was this over-polished wooden box with gleaming metal handles. There was none of my grandmother in that. It was trundled away impersonally behind the folds of an automatically drawn curtain to the accompaniment of that ghastly music that for some reason is deemed appropriate for such occasions but only makes the whole thing worse. Nobody came.
"And afterwards no-one spoke of her. It might almost never have happened, with Gran never having existed. It was the shame of it, I think, and the fear. But I couldn't let go. It was so unreal I couldn't believe it. For months I woke up in the mornings thinking, 'This is the day she'll come back,' until finally I stopped hoping and began to forget."
I'd started parading up and down again, occasionally gripping the back of the chair and wrestling with it. Sile watched me carefully, craning her head round when I walked behind her.
"It had affected Mum too. She walked round in a daze. I'd catch her looking at me or Sis in a strange way; find her and Dad talking in whispers, only to break off their conversation when I entered the room. I guess they wondered whether or not the defect had been passed on and if Mum, Sis and I would suffer the same fate, but they never let on. Too delicate a subject for young ears.
"She'd had us quite late and taken her youth shot straight after I was born. It must have seemed her useful life was facing a cul-de-sac. She took to Gran's habit of mirror-watching; pulling and pinching her face, massaging it with creams, searching for grey hairs, stoking up with pills of all shapes and sizes, enduring bizarre diets and strict exercise regimens. She was prey to every sort of quackery and willingly embraced each fad that came along. None of it brought her peace of mind.
"She couldn't be sure, do you see? Her potions and crazes might be working, but on the other hand she might be normal after all, her youth shot not a potential danger to the life she had planned for herself. It made no difference: the effect her palliatives had, if any, couldn't be measured. The result would be exactly the same as if she was normal and had nothing to worry about. She was quietly going mad, I think. Her work suffered, and Dad's. It wasn't a happy house for a while."
"Poor Alan," Sile said, "It must have been hard."
"It wasn't so bad for me," I said, "but it would have been easier if they'd just talked to me about it. That was the awful thing, knowing there was this great big hole in their lives and not being able to help them with it. It was worse later, when I knew what had troubled Mum so much, realising that I had actually added to her worries, just by being her son and subject to the same fear."
"So what happened to your mother?"
"Well, she was stuck with it. She had a one-in-two chance of inheriting the problem. Her genalysis record was inconclusive; the tests are for parenthood, they're not designed to pick out tiny subtleties. Why worry about something that may not happen? She took counselling and that seemed to help, but I don't think she felt truly free till two years ago. Then she passed the age Gran had been when she was taken, without mishap. But you can see why I'm uncomfortable with Sonny. My genalysis looks okay, but there's still that one-in-four chance of being like Gran. Do you think I want to be reminded of that?"
I was wrung out. I'd never talked about any of this before, for years I'd never reflected about how I felt. Maybe I was becoming more mature, our encounter with Sonny making me more aware of my own mortality, or maybe Sile was getting under my skin, loosening my guard.
"I don't suppose so," she said, "but if you take Sonny as an example, he hasn't done so badly. It's not as if he's helpless or anything."
"But it's not right. He's all alone; he looks grotesque and his lifestyle is horrible, so squalid..."
"It isn't," Sile objected. "You should try to understand a bit more. He's not horrible or grotesque. He's just different."
"But I don't want to be like that," I said. "I want to be happy, not to end my life a poor man, friendless and hidden away."
Gazing through my window, lifting my eyes to the hills which remind me so much of Home, I think of those other hills, in whose shadows the cabin stood, her decades old words coming back to me as clear as - maybe clearer than - if they were spoken today, right now.
"Well, if you play your cards right," she said, staring at me with those knowing blue eyes, "you'll always have me."
"Is that a threat or a promise?" I joked, feebly.
"Both," she said.
© Jack Deighton 1997
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