I'm sorry, but I have nothing substantive for you this week. I have several things half-finished, but that's obviously not good enough.
There was going to be a Shabcast this week, but the recording fell through. My fault. I've been crazy busy in my offline life lately. Also, I've been melting.
Anyway, in order to fulfill my contractural obligation and actually provide some content for Phil and yourselves, I will fob you all off with the first chapter of a fiction project I started last year, tentatively called The Abandoned Line. Let me know what you think... unless you hate it, in which case please be tactfully silent. I honestly wouldn't be doing this to you if I had anything else ready.
(By the way, I know the use of the word 'very' in the first sentence is less then ideal, but don't know how else to make the rhythm work. Suggestions for how to get rid of it would be appreciated.)
When Iza Park found out that her sister Ria was real, they were both very surprised about it.
“Is that me?” asked Ria.
Iza jumped so hard she dropped the book and the photo.
“Where did you come from?” she hissed, twisting around.
“Don’t ask me,” said Ria, who was sitting cross-legged on the kitchen table, “I don’t get any say in it. You’re the one who sends me away when you don’t need me and brings me back when you want something.”
They stared at each other for a moment. Iza waited.
Come on then, she thought, do the next bit. The bit designed to make me feel guilty. The bit you say like you’re talking to yourself, but loud enough so I can hear it.
“Not that you’ve brought me back much lately,” added Ria in an audible mumble.
“I was getting a bit too old to have an imaginary friend,” said Iza.
“I’m your sister, not your friend,” said Ria, “and if I’m imaginary,” she continued, pointing at the photo on the floor, “how come I’m in there?”
Iza bent down and picked up both the photo and the book in which she’d found it. The book had arrived that morning in the post.
Iza recognised herself in the picture, looking about three or four years old. It was the first photo of herself at that age - or any age younger than five - that she had ever seen. But it was definitely her. Little Iza was looking at the camera and smiling. The girl sat next to her was doing neither. She seemed happy enough to be sat next to Iza, but less than thrilled with anything else that was going on. She looked a little older. The girls’ faces had many things in common - same eyes, same nose - but in Iza’s case those things were set into happy surroundings, whereas in Ria’s the surroundings were sad. Both faces were lit from below, golden with candlelight.
“Yes,” said Iza to Ria, who was now standing just behind her, peering at the photo over her shoulder, “it’s you.”
It was the first birthday Iza remembered. Even so, all she had were impressions, glimpses. The warm, dark restaurant. Her blue velvet dress with the little white turned-down collar. Dad taking pictures. People at other tables clapping when the waiters brought out the cakes. The warmth of the candle flames as she held her hand close to them. Mum’s warning. Dad showing her that you could pass your hand through a flame without burning yourself - as long as you were quick. Wanting to try it and being too scared.
Ria had done it, Iza suddenly knew. Looking at the picture, she remembered. Ria had put her fingers quickly through the flames. Then Iza had done it. She felt the memory of the heat in her hand. The photo itself almost seemed hot.
Iza pulled one of the kitchen chairs out from under the table and sat, still staring at picture. When she looked up, Ria was standing on the other side of the table, miming drumming her fingers on top of a box of muesli. She did not actually touch it. Iza knew that if she got down on the floor to stare at Ria’s feet, she would see that they didn’t quite touch the ground.
“Two cakes,” said Ria.
“Two cakes,” confirmed Iza.
“What’s going on?” asked Ria.
“I don’t know,” said Iza.
“Because,” continued Ria, “I thought we settled all this ages ago.”
She began pacing, like a lawyer stating a case. “I’m not real,” she recited, “I never was. You never had a twin. You imagined it all. The two cakes thing never really happened. And so on. We agreed on all that stuff. Didn’t we?”
“We did,” said Iza. “It took some doing, but I talked you round.”
“But,” said Ria, who was by Iza’s side again now, jabbing a finger at the photo.
“But,” agreed Iza.
Iza looked up at Ria.
“I’m real,” said Ria.
“You’re not though,” said Iza, the old objections coming back to her as if there had been no years-long pause in the argument. “Nobody could ever see you or hear you except me. You know that. If we walked out into the street right now nobody would see you. You could go up to someone and scream in their ear and they wouldn’t know anything about it.”
“Here we go again,” huffed Ria, “right where we left off.”
“It’s all still true though,” said Iza gently, not wanting to sound unkind.
They stared resolutely at each other for a moment.
Then they both smiled. Ria’s smile was a curious thing. I looked like some dour and functional piece of machinery was being bent into a shape unintended by the designer. But it was a smile, all the same. They knew they couldn’t hug. It had been tried before, many times, as if repeating the experiment might eventually produce a different outcome, but it had never worked.
“It’s good to see you Iza,” said Ria.
“It’s good to see you Ria,” said Iza.
“Even though I’m dead?” asked Ria.
Iza pretended to be surprised and puzzled, but in fact the idea had also occurred to her. Actually, it had occurred to them both years ago. They’d just never talked about it. They’d silently agreed. Apparently, Ria was finally ready to break that agreement.
“I must be,” said Ria, suddenly brusque. “Look… I used to exist, right? I used to be alive. The picture proves it. I used to get cakes brought to me on my… our… birthday. I used to show up in photographs. Now the only person who can see me is you. Face it… I’m a ghost. That’s the solution to the old problem. That’s the only way someone can be here and not be here at the same time.”
She’d tried to sound tough and businesslike again, but Iza noticed that she’d spoken quickly, almost gabbling, as trying to spit the words out of herself before she was forced to really consider them.
Iza stared at her, wishing that what she was saying didn’t make so much hard, chilly sense. The only other explanation was that Iza was mad, and Iza had discounted that. If it were true, she had no standpoint from which to think about it objectively, so she might as well pretend it wasn’t a possibility.
“…which means you died,” said Iza slowly, following Ria’s thought, wanting to back away from the words even as she heard herself say them. “At some point, you died and they covered it up. They lied to me and told me you never existed. For some reason.”
“Did they kill me?” asked Ria, sounding scared.
Iza said nothing.
Ria moved closer to her.
“Iza, did our parents kill one of us?”
Silence settled on them like snow as they stared at the photo.
“I need to talk to Mum,” said Iza. She heard the glum reluctance in her own voice. She noticed herself involuntarily retreating into slumping shoulders.
“Umm, yeah,” said Ria, “I’d quite like to talk to her myself but, y’know, it’s a bit tricky…”
“She wouldn’t hear you or see you,” supplied Iza.
“Yeah, there’s that. And it’s a socially awkward situation, isn’t it? I mean, I wouldn’t know how to broach the subject. ‘Hey Mum, I’ve come back as a ghost and I just wanted to ask… by any chance did you and Dad murder me when I was five? Just asking.’”
“That’s a point actually,” said Iza, perking up slightly, “if they murdered you, how come you don’t remember it?”
“Maybe they did it when I was asleep,” suggested Ria. “Besides, I don’t know how ghosts work. I’ve only just found out I am one.”
Iza slumped again.
“We still don’t know for sure…” she muttered.
“Ask her for the gory details when you talk to her,” suggested Ria, “Just be careful she isn’t holding any objects at the time. Sharp or blunt.”
“No need to worry about that,” said Iza.
Ria studied her sister’s rueful expression for a moment.
“Things have gotten worse while I was away?” she asked.
“Huh,” said Iza.
It was Ria’s turn to slump. The last time she had appeared to Iza, their mother had already been bad. She seemed to be imagining how much worse it could’ve gotten.
Iza told her. Ria gaped, entirely forgetting her affected air of callous breeziness.
“You mean, she never comes out at all?”
“But how do you…”
“Phone. Email. Skype.”
“You Skype with her… while she’s upstairs?”
“Might as well be on Pluto for all I see her.”
“So she doesn’t do any TV anymore?”
“No. The last one was the series on Marie Antoinette.”
“I never saw that one.”
“That was a couple of years ago now. There was a bit of a ruckus with the TV company. She was contracted to do another one. She had to pay them a ton of money to make that go away. What was the last series you saw?”
“The one about Eleanor of Aquitaine.”
“Oh, that was aaaaaages ago. She did about three more queens and a couple of princesses after that.”
There was a pause while Ria looked like she was about to speak.
“What?” asked Iza.
Ria looked sheepish. Then angry with herself. Then sheepish again. She opened her mouth to say something. Then closed it and turned away to stare into a corner.
“It’s on YouTube,” said Iza.
“Oh right,” said Ria.
“I think I’ve got it bookmarked on my phone,” said Iza.
“Hmm,” said Ria.
“Let’s go up to my room,” said Iza.
“Fine,” said Ria, “as I don’t have one.”
Five minutes later they were sat next to each other on Iza’s bed. Ria’s weightless presence made no impression on the pillows or cushions, and no dent in the mattress.
Iza brought her knees up and used her tilted lap as a stand for her expensive rectangle. On the bright little screen, their mother was walking around inside a cathedral.
Before they sat down on the bed, Iza had wedged the photograph into the frame around her dressing table mirror. Ria had stood next to her and watched. Iza saw Ria reflected in mirrors. They’d both stared at the photograph solemnly, and then Iza had sensed Ria smile again.
Their mother’s voice emerged from the phone. She was talking about Catherine Howard.
“Which one is she?” asked Ria, her arms folded, her eyes never leaving the screen.
“I think she’s one of the ones who got her head cut off,” said Iza. “She had to marry Henry VIII when she was about 18 and he was about 60, fat, and gangrenous.”
“How romantic,” said Ria.
Their mother said something about Catherine Howard being a victim. An actress in period costume looked appropriately sad for the camera.
“She looks older,” said Ria.
“No,” snapped Ria, “Mum.”
“Well, that’ll happen.”
“So do you.”
“Yeah. I grew up,”said Iza, fully aware of the fact that she wasn’t ‘grown-up’ exactly.
“I didn’t,” said Ria.
It hadn’t occurred to Iza. She twisted slightly to stare at her sister. Ria looked the same as when Iza had last seen her.
"You stopped getting older,” she said, “you were tracking me… you were always ahead of me…”
It hit her. She was now older than her big sister.
“That’s another point actually,” she said, after a little silence in which they both mourned this fact in their own ways, “that photo is obviously our birthday… a birthday party for both of us…”
“Two cakes,” muttered Ria.
“…but how can we have the same birthday if you’re older than me?”
Their mother said something about Catherine Howard being brave. The actress in period costume looked appropriately stoic for the camera.
They both looked across at the mirror and the photograph. They both looked at the two cakes, which Iza had - until that morning - accepted as a false memory, a figment of her imagination.
“Maybe it was just one of our birthdays but they got us both a cake so the other one wouldn’t get jealous,” said Iza, though she knew it didn’t sound right. Their parents didn’t do things like that.
“Hang on,” said Ria, “where’s the book?”
Iza looked blank. Ria made a ‘you div’ face at her. Iza remembered.
“Hang on,” she said, and went to get it. She was going to bring it back to the bedroom, but Ria was waiting in the kitchen by the time she got there. She’d forgotten Ria could do that. The book was on the table where Iza supposed she must’ve set it down. Ria was circling it like a crow hopping around roadkill. She wiggled her fingers in frustration at being unable to pick it up.
It looked, on closer examination, like a self-published work. The binding was cheaply glossy, and it had a badly photoshopped cover featuring a ghost - of the white sheet variety - crudely superimposed on top of a photo of a tube station. It proclaimed itself, in a strangely inappropriate font which made the words look like they were made of balloon animals, to be called Myths and Mysteries of the Underground, and to have been written by someone with the unlikely name ‘Morgana Le Fanu’.
"Well that looks sane, reliable, and well-researched,” said Ria.
“It’s about the tube,” said Iza.
“It is,” said Ria, before adding “Well spotted,” in a clearly audible murmur.
There was no need for them to explain to each other why this was so strange. They both knew. The tube was untouchable within the Park family. None of them ever travelled on it. It was simply out of the question. One of those privately understood prohibitions that was never talked about but understood by all who were within its jurisdiction. Neither Mum nor Dad had ever explained to Iza why she wasn’t allowed to take the tube, and why they never used it. That was just the way it was, and had always been. Mum said so. Dad said so. Other people took the tube. The Park family never did. Never. She herself has never been tempted to break the prohibition. The little voice of rebellion that lives inside the heads of all normal children whispered to her as much as to anyone else, but had never whispered about taking the tube. The thought sometimes rushed in at her like a tide: Why? It did so now. But always, as now, she sent it packing, without knowing why she did so.
And yet here was a book about the tube. Sent to her.
“It was sent to you, was it?” asked Ria, as if she had read Iza’s thought.
Iza stopped. It was just like the old days. She would think something and Ria would be there, unseen and unheard by everyone else, asking a pertinent question, making her think twice. She knew Ria couldn’t read her mind (they’d done experiments) but Ria knew her so well, sometimes it was as if she could.
Iza walked out of the kitchen into the hall, looking for the envelope. She must’ve dropped it out there. She found it. It wasn’t an Amazon cardboard wrap, or a sleeve of plastic bubbles. It was a professional-looking envelope, made of heavy cream paper. The address on the front was printed onto a sticker.
It was addressed to ‘Miss Elizabeth and Miss Victoria Park’.
She held it up to Ria, who had been waiting for her in the hall, sat at the bottom of the staircase and peering at her steadily through the ornate balustrade.
“Sent to both of us,” she commented.
“Yes,” said Iza.
“Even though I’m not real.”
“Or possibly dead.”
“No note?” asked Ria.
Iza checked the envelope. There was indeed no note. Then she checked the book still in her hand. There was nothing written in it. Then she had an idea and ran back upstairs. She grabbed the photo from the frame of her mirror. Ria was sat on the bed again, watching her quizzically. Iza turned the photo over. There was an inscription on the back, in what she recognised as her father’s handwriting. It said ‘the last night - just before’. Again she held words up for Ria to read.
On the abandoned phone, which lay on the bed, their mother said something about Catherine Howard being tragic. The actress in period costume looked appropriately sad again.
“Perhaps we should talk to Dad,” suggested Ria.
“He’s even harder to get hold of than Mum,” said Iza, “he’s off developing stuff and gentrifying things, and socially-cleansing people out of their neighbourhoods. I think him and Mum are basically separated, but it’s not official. Knowing them they probably haven’t even talked about it. It just happened, a bit at a time.”
“So then?” said Ria, in a tone that meant So are you going to call Mum or not?, and also Why did I get all the initiative in this family?
“Okay,” she said.
She scooped up her phone.
But there was no answer. Mum wasn’t online either, or on Skype, or anywhere else. She was busy doing whatever it was she did up there all day. Iza sent an email but without much expectation of a reply. She turned the YouTube video back on. If she couldn’t talk to her actual Mum, she could at least let Ria listen to the recorded version. Mum’s voice floated out of the little machine, saying something about Catherine Howard being dead. The actress in period costume looked appropriately dead… though, mysteriously, she still had her head attached.
“Maybe we should try knocking on the ceiling with a broom,” suggested Ria, “or scaling the wall and crawling in through an upstairs window.”
“That wouldn’t work,” said Iza, “she’s got them shuttered, and there are iron bars on the inside.”
Ria goggled at her again.
“What’s she expecting? A terrorist attack? The zombie apocalypse?”
Iza didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to say what she was thinking, which was that Mum wouldn’t have minded either of those things so much. It was the prospect of seeing her daughter which seemed to terrify her. Ria, of course, picked up on the unspoken thought, and frowned an extra frown on top of her usual one, which made it look like unseen hands were pushing her face into a concentrated area on the front of her head.
“Is that really the only way to talk to her?” asked Ria, nodding towards Iza’s phone.
As had often been the way of things, Iza felt the injustice of having an imaginary friend who seemed to prefer to judge her, interrogate her, and seemingly read her mind, rather than offer companionship or solidarity. She remembered being jealous of other kids at school, kids whose imaginary friends were just special mates, or compliant little brothers, or friendly giraffes, or sentient piles of pancakes, who always supported them, and whose worst crimes seemed to be to break things in such a way that their human companion accidentally got the blame.
“I think maybe we should try and see Dad,” said Ria.
“Try his office, you mean?”
“I told you, he’s probably in Dubai, organising slave labour to build a new million foot tall skyscraper or something.”
“Well let’s find out. What if you called to make an appointment?”
“I’ve tried that. It just tips him off that you’re coming. Gives him a chance to escape.”
“So we just go,” said Ria.
Iza sighed again and pocketed her phone.
She got some money together for a taxi. It was too far to walk, and of course the tube was out of the question. (The tide washed around her feet again, and again she batted it back out to sea.)
From inside Iza’s pocket, as she descended the stairs to find Ria waiting impatiently for her in the lobby, Mum said something about Catherine Howard’s ghost haunting Hampton Court Palace.
The actress in period costume looked appropriately transparent.
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