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 A Son of the Rock
the novel by Jack Deighton

Chapter 14. Keep Young And Beautiful

The old Home town looked the same, nestling reassuringly in the folds of two valleys. I had clicked off the landmarks one by one as, following the dips and hollows of the road, the hovercab made its meandering approach towards the bar of the loose curled T-shape formed by the town's sprawl along both rivers. Bowling down from the higher ground round the spaceport I was afforded a vista of the broader river fanning out slowly till it widened abruptly to estuarine size a few kayem in the distance. On its rural far bank a low range of Homegrass covered hills rose like a huge humpbacked sea mammal coming up for air. Geep and sturdicows dotted its green hide like speciated barnacles.

The road followed the river round the rocky promontory on the nearer bank before debouching into the roughly canalised ex-floodplain straddling the confluence where the main bulk of the town stood. The quarry cut its deep slash into the precise angle of the hillside, extending slowly backward with each succeeding year. Its restricted, vertiginously steep access was by-passed in seconds, leaving on the retinas the picture of a confused jumble of seemingly ramshackle buildings perched crazily atop one another as they scrabbled for purchase on the incline. Once past the bend the intervening bulk of towering rock hid it from the town's view. Were it not for the periodic echoing blasts sending clouds of slowly dispersing dust into the atmosphere above the hill nor the one long betraying declivity pulled down from the erstwhile summit like a trembling lip it might almost have been possible to forget the quarry's existence.

Below the stepped terraces of the crags above the town and along the more rounded hills across the narrower valley cotton-easter was strung out on the middle slopes, decking them with patchy ribbons of white fluff as if in welcome of a prodigal's return. For me the effect was partly negated by the dark green background of shrub, picked through in places by the brown and grey of underlying soil and stone scored along the hills, resembling the veins of minerals I had seen lining the Hole. More or less resigned by now to such episodic flashbacks, I shook my head to remove this latest hallucinatory reminder of Copper and the years-dead Sonny and concentrated instead on the familiar twists and turns of the streets.

On my annual returns home things had always looked cramped and smaller than my childhood memories would have them. Allowing for that as I scanned the route ahead I nevertheless took note of some differences, a demolition here, a change of use there, a "prime" development site displaying its gaudy invitations to the world. Through gaps between houses, the sudden flash up side avenues, I caught glimpses of the rash of new building that had sent probing tendrils of urbanity into the clefts of the hills.

Mum and Dad were there to meet me as I stepped down from the hovercab. The relief I always felt at seeing her taut time-frozen face free of wrinkles had lessened over recent years but it was still a pleasure to see her well and sprightly. Dad was just Dad, a quiet background presence ever ready to support and protect.

After the hugs were over she said, "You're looking tired, son. You've been away from your mother too long."

"It's old age, Ma," I joked, and regretted it as soon as I saw the look of shock which spread across their faces. I had miscalculated. Normally I wouldn't have made a remark in such poor taste, especially to her, but I'd thought maybe enough time had elapsed since she'd surpassed the age at which her mother had succumbed for her to be able to cope. Now, I guessed, she was waiting for the big one; if a wrinkle were to appear it would no longer be the prelude to a prolonged deterioration in conditions of enforced isolation but instead the harbinger of a sudden descent to oblivion. Which option was to be preferred was not obvious, and a decision I had as yet lacked the courage to face.

"What do you know of such things?" she asked in tones of dismay. "We always took care to shield you from all that."

"You'd be surprised," I told her. I'd never found the right opportunity to discuss Sonny with her. Her reaction now suggested maybe that had been a fortunate oversight.

Dad's quiet authority then took over. "Let's all go in, now, shall we?" he said, steering us swiftly into the house.

Later, in passing, he had a few quick words, "Never say anything like that again, son," he admonished me. "Not even in jest." It wasn't necessary for him to elaborate.

"Sorry," I said, "I won't," my ultimate destiny as ever forcing itself to the forefront of my mind. "It's not such a bad thing, you know; old age," I continued. "It has a certain nobility." I don't know who I was trying to convince, him or myself.

"That's as maybe," he replied. "But I don't think many would agree with that. Your mother's tranquillity is fragile. I don't want it disturbed."

I watched her closely as I helped with the preparations for the party, her busying trivialities of assisting Dad with the cooking, folding napkins, fiddling with canapes, stocking up with drinks. My parents had always been desperately old-fashioned; they never knowingly let a sniff of more exotic drugs into the house. I guess that's one of the reasons why I ended up tippling raki.

She went about things with a kind of pernickety attention to detail that was a cover for her eternal preoccupation. Her thoughts never strayed far from the calamity that had befallen her mother. The spur of my presence and its reminder that her ancestry had condemned me and Sis to similar suspense sharpened her sense of guilt. For her, each year of life stolen from the jaws of uncertainty was, I realised, at best a brittle cause for celebration. Her victory over the recessive enemy that lurked in her chromosomes was indelibly tainted.

Just before the guests were due to arrive - colleagues from work mostly, with a scattering of neighbourhood friends - she stopped in front of the hall mirror to smooth down her glossy brown hair. Almost as a reflex she peered intently at the corners of her eyes, ran her fingers over her forehead and across her cheek ridges.

I came up behind her, caught her gaze. "Habits die hard, I see," I said.

She smiled at me nervously before inspecting herself again; turned sideways on to admire the still slim lines of her body - showed off to advantage by a figure hugging tunic dress. Her long slim legs tapered gracefully inside her monochrome leggings. She faced the mirror once more. "I never thought I'd get this far," she said dreamily.

"Well you did, and I'm glad," I said. I squeezed her shoulder. "You're beautiful, Mum. Always will be." She smiled more freely this time.

I leaned past her, checking my own reflection. "You've got me at this too, you know," I told her. "A woman once told me I was such a vain so-and-so. She was only half wrong."

"Pity," she said wistfully. "I always hoped you'd find a nice girl, settle down."

"Oh, mother! No-one does that any more. No-one except you and Dad did it even when you were starting out."

"I know, son. But your mother can always dream."

Sis hadn't made it that year. She was way out on Belisario, pulling strings on a niche marketing ploy she'd got going to mass produce twee figurines based on local artefacts and sell her sanitised versions on. I consoled myself with the thought that at least there was some mining work involved for the raw materials.

Such enterprises are so much easier now the technology has improved. With the enlarged SHIFT chambers and more powerful transmission systems travel can be done in batches over longer hops. Nowhere in Orth is more than a couple of days away at most. Anyone can slap a fancy label on an otherwise nondescript product and distribute it throughout the co-prosperity sphere at a high mark-up. It does mean, though, that supplies of iridium have been pretty well exhausted - Orthrocks, they tell me, spends more and more money for less and less return. And shifting (without the emphasis) has become a commonplace.

I guess shipping goods these days is relatively hassle free: but I'd hate to be responsible for inspecting the shift chambers after a batch of people has gone through, even if the cleaning is automated. Sometimes I've wondered if it's the characteristic smell of disinfectant and deodorant that requires en-suite vomitaria rather than vice-versa. Mind you, I've heard some people get off on the mix.

In the dim distance before such refinements even shifting by the many intervening jump points would have taken Sis a week, so she'd given it a miss. But she had sent a disc.

Mum slid it into the slot, touched the tab and the vibrant snow-flaked green fluid of the tank snapped from standby into its peculiar imitation of life. Sis was standing in front of a belt of peculiarly coloured trees, a lilting shade of blue. Her short dark hair was sharply shaped, framing her face, emphasising her resemblance to Dad. She was surrounded by a mass of gaily coloured figurines, crudely modelled I thought, from what I could see of the detail, and lacking subtlety in the painting. But I've never been wholly at one with the tastes of the great Orth public. I guessed she knew what she was doing.

Her broad shoulders were disguised by a well cut jacket which also obscured what may have been a tailored titefit or some other no nonsense upper garment. (She was touting for serious business. Not for her the garish sloganising popular at the time, the more or less blatant 'fuck me' T-shirts, the skimpy tops advertising the latest recreational drug, dance craze, some voguish popular pursuit, or otherwise emblazoned with arcana of various sorts.) A crisp pair of trews added to the effect which was rounded off by what Mum had always called sensible shoes, but these were elegantly styled. She had certainly dressed the part of the thrusting entrepreneur.

As soon as she spoke the illusion fell apart and she was Sis again.

"Hello Mum. Hello Dad. Hi Alan," she said, accompanied by a manic wave and an ear-splitting grin. "And everybody else who knows me," she added.

"Well, here it is." She spread her arms to encompass her collection of clay statuettes, twitched her eyebrows. "Nice, aren't they?" She adopted an earnest expression, switched to a mock serious tone, modulating her voice an octave or so lower. "Available soon at an outlet near you." She turned to somebody off camera, though to us it looked like she was talking to Dad's foreman who was in the corner of the room where her gaze was apparently directed. "You know, sometimes I'm so inventive I could hug myself." There was laughter, both outside the tank and in. Through it I just caught a thin, reedy voice from out of shot say, "I'll do it for you."

"Only if I let you, matey," she replied to it, before turning back to face Mum, Dad and me, shaking her head, saying, "Some people! No sense of decorum."

She paused as if gathering her thoughts then continued brightly, "Well, is it that time again? It doesn't seem like a year. Happy birthday, Mum. Sorry I couldn't be there. You and Dad make sure you have a good time. And keep that brother of mine off the booze. He never could handle it."

"Ha!" I objected. "She's one to talk."

"I'm fine, Mum, and things are going well," she went on. "I've been busy, as you can see. By the time you get to watch this, these ought to be in the stores." She gestured at the clutter around her feet.

"And I've been busy in more ways than one." She jumped out of the frame, came back pulling a vainly protesting figure into shot by its arm.

"This is Harris," she said. "Say 'Hello,' Harris." He could have endeared himself to me immediately had he said 'Hello Harris' in return but instead he merely shuffled in beside her, a weedy looking guy with a shock of orange hair and an inane grimace, mumbling, "Hi."

"Where does she get them from?" I asked.

Sis had latched on to his arm, proprietorially. "Harris has been helping me get things together out here," she went on. I was about to make another facetious comment but she pre-empted me. "Shut up, Alan. I know you're sniggering." She turned to look at him and flashed a grin back at us. "He is cuddly though, Mum; don't you think?"

"Oh no!" I said, curiously disgusted. "But then Sis could always pick them."

"Don't be so uncharitable Alan," Mum chided me. "He seems like a nice boy."

Harris meanwhile at least had the grace to appear embarrassed. Mind you, I don't suppose he'd ever been dragged in front of a girlfriend's family and its assorted acquaintances before, even via the remote proxy of a VT disc. Sis did have a knack of being persuasive. Both her projects would do well I had no doubt; until she took up other enthusiasms to replace them.

"I hope this finds you as it leaves me," Sis wound up, "and that Dad is behaving himself, as usual. Look after him, Mum. He needs you. See you soon. Bye."

She gave Harris a sharp dig in the ribs and the pair of them began to wave madly, like demented puppets. The tank flickered briefly and hazed over once more into speckled green and white, their colour-reversed images dancing briefly on the spangled background.

"Silly, sentimental child," Mum said into the sudden hiss from the speakers, but you could see she was touched.

It was while I was consuming some titbit in a quiet moment later, that Dad came over. "That was nice of your sister," he said.

"Mmm," I said licking my fingers clean. "What was?"

"Trying to boost your mother's morale like that."

I looked at him closely, saw my grey eyes and trim nose reflected back, the precursor of Sis in his eyebrows and the frame of his face. But he had a faraway look, there was a pinched air to his expression. The strain he'd been living with for so long was beginning to affect him. The support he'd given so unstintingly had taken its toll, depleting his reservoir of quiet strength. I realised that Sis had been right. That support wasn't anything I had ever questioned, it was merely the nature of Mum and Dad's relationship. Something had kept them together all these years despite all the cultural inclinations to the contrary. It was a measure of his deep respect and affection for Mum that he had stuck around. I could think of no one else who would have done the same in the circumstances. But now the support had to flow in the opposite direction. He did need her; if for no other reason than to validate his decision to stay. Without her his life would have been empty.

"Yours as well," I said. "She cares for you both. So do I. That's why she said it. She's not a fool, you know."

"And neither is your mother," he replied. "She knows the truth of things, who's the stronger between us. She'll never be truly happy till she knows you're both safe." It was as if he was running on autopilot. The veneer of capability he had cultivated for my mother's benefit had become so engrained he couldn't take any time out.

"I'm all right," I assured him. "I've still not taken my youth shots. As for Sis, she's always been happy-go-lucky. She'll put enough into her life to make it worthwhile even if it is foreshortened."

Someone had switched on the tank again. The stamp and bluster of the intro music to OBN's news programme blared out from the speakers.

"But neither one of you has had any kids. Your mother can't help but feel she's responsible for that. I mean, but for - you know - she'd have loved grandchildren."

"That's never been a factor as far as I was concerned," I told him. "I've had such a lot to look up to, Dad; and I've never met anyone suitable.

"Well, maybe once," I conceded. "I guess Sis hasn't either. Look at that geek she's taken up with now. Remember Mum and Sis are close in ways we're not. I think they understood each other well enough.

"Sis was right in a way," I went on. "You deserve a bit of looking after. Give Mum a chance. She's maybe more resilient than you credit. It's been a long time."

"It has," he sighed, "and you may be right. But I don't know if I can relax so easily."

"Try Dad," I said. "For both your sakes."

Inadvertently I let my gaze wander round the room. Mum was engaged in conversation with one of the guests, a woman I'd never seen before, dark hair styled in a peculiar pyramidal fashion, like a wedge perched on her head, with golden highlights marking each edge. She was clad in what I presumed was the coming fashion fad - all-black skin-tight leggings and exiguous top, exposing bare shoulders and midriff painted in fluorescent whorls to match her eyeflashes. Lemon drop earrings completed the ensemble. A similarly-hued drink in her hand enhanced the effect. Mum looked utterly staid by comparison, but somehow reassuring. I caught her attention and smiled. She began to stroll towards us, companion in tow. Mum introduced her as a recently moved-in neighbour.

The woman looked me up and down as we made the usual polite noises, while I tried to ignore the nipples straining against the tight fabric across her chest. I forgot her name instantly.

"What were you two cooking up together?" Mum asked. "I'll bet they were talking about me," she added in an aside.

Dad winked at me, turned back to Mum. "Of course Merle," he said. "What other subject could there be?"

"You'll need to tell me your secret, Merle," the neighbour said. Her eyes flashed arrows of livid yellow as she blinked. Mum's startled expression faded into relief as the woman went on, "I've never managed to inspire such gallantry."

"Oh it's nothing," Mum said too dismissively. She quickly cast around for another subject, fixed her gaze on the VT. "Look, Alan," she said, waving a bangled wrist at me. "Isn't that Frazer Barber? You used to play with him when you were a boy, didn't you?" We all followed her gaze, shuffled space for a view. Mum and Dad gravitated together. I ended up next to the painted lady.

"Yes," I said. "To both."

"He's done well for himself," she approved.

The tank was displaying a huge wooden effigy of an eons-obsolete type of spaceship from the diasporic age. Frazer was walking its length, delivering an apparently flawless piece to camera. How many takes it had required was another matter.

"If you ask me, he's just another Chelsea Monday," the neighbour piped up. "Look at that stupid trailing purple thong round his neck. It's like her ribbonshades thing, isn't it?"

I briefly imagined licking the navel at the centre of one of her yellow whorls, going on to lick something else; then repressed the thought. "It's given you something to comment on," I said. I declined to claim any credit.

"He's attracting attention to himself; away from the subject."

"How do you think Chelsea Monday got famous?" I asked.

The tank showed a night scene now. Flickering light danced over the ship's hull, illumination from hundreds of flaming torches carried by the shadowed people in procession round it. The uncertain beams shone briefly on upturned faces. A ghostly, smeared out image of the tank's contents cast a lurid reflection from the ceiling above. There was a great concerted shout and the shadows lobbed their firebrands at the huge wooden structure, transitory arches of gold spanning the night sky. The ship must have been treated with an accelerant. It caught immediately, the innumerable small fires quickly merging into a giant conflagration.

"I don't think Frazer's the focus of attention now," I murmured into a painted ear. The upper line of the woman's eyeflash followed exactly the triangular face of her stack of hair. Her body was angled towards me slightly, affording me the glimpse of a barely suppressed cleavage when I looked down. She smiled at me coquettishly, sipped at her drink.

A thunder of pyrotechnics erupted in the tank. An impossibly long shot whose framing Frazer's team must have spent an age in planning showed the explosions as weird scintillae scattered in the darkened volume over the ship, like startled jellyfish caught in a sudden unexpected radiance. The view cut to ground level. Smoke roiled and climbed above the burning wreck, cutting off with abrupt linearity where the viewing medium ended a few emmem below the tank's rim. A slight billowing betrayed the vortex created by the stirrer.

Through the appreciative murmurs of the audience in the room I discerned from Frazer's commentary that this spectacle was the decennial celebration by the inhabitants of Ophelia of the disaster which had befallen their pioneering ancestors and had almost caused their nascent enterprise to fail before it had begun: a bizarre commemoration of the original crash-landing transformed into a glorious affirmation of their eventual triumph over adversity.

"I suppose he carried it off okay," the neighbour said. Mum and Dad had drifted away leaving me alone with her. I had the vague notion that Mum may have set me up. But she was never usually as devious as that; and she knew my tastes so wouldn't have bothered. More likely the encounter was due solely to serendipity. Or its opposite, whatever that is.

"What?" I said. "Oh, Frazer. Yes. He's good at it. At least as good as Chelsea. I've met her you know."

"Really?" She turned to face me.

"Yeah. She's a queen bitch if you must know."

Her eyebrows raised. "Oh?" Luminous yellow half moons shone below them. Her heavy perfume filled my nostrils. I was uncomfortably aware of how long ago Vazhni had been, or even the few interludes since. "Sounds like a wounded ego," she probed.

"She's not my type," I demurred.

"What is then?" Her tongue began teasing a perfect upper row of teeth.

"That would be telling."

"Reticence, Alan?" she asked archly. "I didn't expect that."

I gave up the struggle to ignore the attractions on display. It had been a long time, and my aversion to artifice has on the odd occasion succumbed to the greater temptations of lust.

I leant forward. "Do you want to fuck, then?" I asked.

She recoiled slightly. "I wouldn't have put it quite so brutally."

"Okay. For you I'll make an exception. I'll put it another way."

"Aren't you the sweet tongued charmer," she said with heavy sarcasm.

"My sweet tongue has had a few compliments," I said disingenuously.

"Is that so? I can put it to the test. But I warn you, I'm a devil when I'm disappointed."

"Forget the disappointment. Just be a devil."

Her grin suggested that was what she had intended anyway.

The paint continued below the black top and leggings, swirling round breasts tipped by red splashes tasting of thuleberry, merged into a thick arrowhead pointed at her crotch. Her saffrony pubic thatch was a different colour at the roots. My sweet tongue had a hard job stopping the bile rising: but, like I said, it had been a long time.

After, there came the inescapable two inquiries. "Have you had your two kids?" and, "How old are you?" In my case, on any extended liaison, there was usually a third - "Who's Sile?"

"No and thirty-five," I told her. "A girl I knew somewhere."

"She must have made quite an impression."

"Yeah, well. It's not something I talk about much."

"You just did."

"Heat of the moment," I excused myself. "An aberration," I lied. "I'm sorry."

"That's all right. I've got a past myself." After a few seconds she added, "Perhaps you should talk more. Get her out of your system."

"It's no good. Believe me, I've tried." I lapsed into a broody silence.

She broke it with a thoughtful, "I've got a daughter on Broomsvig and a son on Alta Plana." It crossed my mind that she might be pitying me but at least that had got rid of one question. I took the bait. "How old are you, then?"

She rolled on top of me, pushed herself up, firm breasts standing proud and round, elastic skin smooth and taut. She pulled a retaining clip from her disarrayed hair, tossed the loosed black and gold tresses back. "I'm sixty-six," she said.

Despite the shunning of any physical signs of ageing I'd noticed that for certain people the fact itself was a cause for perverse pride and celebration. There was an element of that to Mum's parties but she had a real reason to celebrate each passing year. For the rest it was another expression of the narcissistic nature of Orth culture. Look at me. See how old I am. And not a wrinkle.

Well bugger her. I could top that. Idly I tweaked a thuleberry flavoured nipple. "I've not had my youth shots," I said.

"You're joking!" From her expression you might have thought I'd just admitted to mass murder.

"No. I've never felt the need."

She realised I was serious. "But... I mean... Why not?"

"It's a long story. Complicated."

"Just the same..."

"I may not ever get round to it."

She sagged back on her heels. "You don't intend to?" The thought plainly horrified her.

I shrugged.

"Aren't you afraid of getting old?"

"Were you?"

The question threw her completely. "That was different," she stuttered. "I wasn't going to lose my looks."

"None of that matters to me."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm not interested in keeping up appearances. Don't you get tired of all this fashion business?"

"No. Why should I? It's amusing. Always something new." She smiled tentatively. "Like you."

"Why bother? Why not let nature take its course?"

Through a long pause she stared at me uncomprehendingly.

"You're sick," she finally announced. She started scrabbling around for her clothes. It didn't take her long to dress.

She left quickly, gold-flecked black tresses flaring.

"What was your name again?" I called out vengefully to her retreating back.

© Jack Deighton 1997

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