“Japanese girls, freshly picked,” a hoarse voice whispered from behind the curtains of darkness. They had climbed off the elephabus and walked for ten minutes along the canal that now flowed where there used to be a street named after a battlefield. Then they had taken a left turn into a narrow lane where they heard the voice.
“Thanks, burima. I will just do with the cleanweed. Besides I have a guest,” Captain Old whispered.
The wrinkled lady who had appeared like a ghost, peered at him from inside the abandoned electricity distribution box, cackled loudly, showing damaged yellow teeth. She had east Asian features but years of living in the disused brick sewers below this city had turned her skin the colour of glass. She studied Old’s face. “Why, what’s the matter boy? Since the time I arrived in this city, you have always proved to be a red-blooded male. Do you have a problem with the Japanese? I promise they are fresh off the boat.’
“Uh!” Old turned back to make sure that his guest wasn’t listening, though he hardly cared, “I had a rough evening and don’t feel like anything but a few long drags.’
“You are becoming heartless, son, that you are. I can see it in your glazed look. What would these poor girls eat if people like you don’t give them business? I cannot make them chew on weed. And who knows...” the wrinkled lady shook her head in disapproval.
“I am sorry, burima, another time. Can you hurry it please, I have been up all night.” He stashed the weed in his trouser pocket and asked her to put it on his account.
Her yellow eyes had gone out of focus. She was not there any more. “But won’t you come down and have a look at least? They still have those old-fashioned fairy outfits with bows on their heads; you might even want to get married to one,” she murmured absentmindedly.
“Too late, granny, maybe another time,” he grunted and stepped back from the distribution box, its aluminum paint, with the skull and cross bones, still shining after all these years. The lady slammed shut the doors from inside and dropped back into the brick sewer underneath. Old smelled the weed, realising too late that he had been ripped off again with the chemical soaked stuff.
When they finally arrived at his flat on street 5.7, it was almost dawn. A blister of greenish clouds had scattered from the south and the sky was oozing pink morning light. They walked the few steps to the red brick building with the crumbling staircase, their feet heavy from the weight of the night. There was a chunk of lab-ham in the fridge but because of intermittent power cuts, it had spoiled. Old had received two weeks’ supply of the imported meat as prize for winning the neighbourhood street-sweeping competition, two months in a row.
He took out the chunk of lab-grown meat wrapped in cellophane and placed it on the counter top. Washing it thoroughly he cut some thin slices with a carving knife, putting the rest back into the freezer. Taking down the heavy skillet he deep fried the slices in chilli-flavoured safeoil but Henry wasn’t going to have any of it.
Old knew that the student who lived next door had stocked vegetables bought at a premium from the smugglers, so taking a look up and down the corridor, he picked the lock and sneaked in. He grabbed a handful of potatoes and stuffing his pockets with chillies and onions, stepped back into his office.
His guest was in the back room sitting on a rocking chair. He was leafing through a book whose foxed pages were turning into dust in his hands. It was one of his books but Old couldn’t read the title from where he stood. As his guest turned over each page, it dispersed into a red powder which settled slowly on his lap. He read fast and in little over an hour he had finished the volume of which nothing was left, save a tattered cover and a pile of dust on his trousers.
Captain Old went about preparing a broth in the corner kitchen. Chopping the onion, he pressed a slice to his nose. Bliss! And despite the tears streaming down his eyes, the pungency of the freshly cut bulb brought back forgotten flavours of spicy gravy to his mind.
Though he often filched onions from his neighbour, he could rarely use it for cooking. He employed onion for a different and unavoidable purpose, notwithstanding the fact that it left him smelling like a soup kitchen.
His guest enjoyed the simple meal. He dunked pieces of mouldy bread in the broth to make it softer while Old chewed on the stringy meat, nipping absentmindedly at the last slices of bread he had stocked. He had bartered a few bottles of safeoil for bread at the local ration shop and would have to scavenge for more, now that his food coupons were gone. But right now there were questions that needed to be answered.
The message that had preceded the foreigner’s arrival had been crisp and to the point. This man knew something. And he had wanted to discuss it with him, him of all people! What could this grizzled Englishman, with one foot in the grave, know that hadn’t been figured out already? Old didn’t buy the story of the lost antidote that was circulated from time to time like comic book science fiction. They will have to talk, soon as his guest was rested and ready.
After the meal, Henry took out his violin, and played a tune which evoked visions of trees shedding their leaves, their bare branches like iron skeletons probing the grey emptiness, of cars swerving off roads on dead tyres where they light up in one final effulgence of petroleum.
The notes filled up the empty rooms, pouring out through the windows, and the wasted people in the street below stirred in their siesta, dreaming of lost loves and forgotten places where they had spent their days of laughter. The Englishman played the music for an hour sending the neighbourhood into a restive slumber. Old did his breathing exercises.
His ribs ached. He breathed normally but the bruises were still tender. Luckily there was nothing broken and hopefully no internal damage, but a dull pain remained in his chest. He massaged his trunk a couple of times and did a number of stretches before popping a painkiller. But the medicine took its time. He lay down on his cot and closed his eyes for a while.
But he couldn’t sleep. Soon as he had lain down, from far away, across the Ash Barricades a high-pitched feminine voice began to sing:
Buy, buy, buy
You are thin
We are spry
Buy, buy, buy!
The music washed over the city travelling far into the villages of Darkland. Accompanied by a rhythm guitar and electronic drums, the song looped on and on in every mind long after speakers had fallen quiet.
Old got out of bed, bleary eyed from the lack of sleep. “Don’t you need some rest?” he asked the Englishman.
“I am okay,” Henry replied. He had been listening to the song from across the border, a sad twinkle in his eyes.
Later in the afternoon, he wanted to see the river. “This is the river that gave birth to a civilisation. I want to see it with my own eyes.’
“There is nothing much there,” Old said, pulling out a wrinkled shirt. It would be warm outside at this time of the day. He pinned on his spare soul ticket with the image of the SUPREME GUIDE. The other one he had lost to the snatchers.
They locked the flat and walked down to the Square of the Martyrs with its rows of old care homes and hospitals. Over the years, little barter and pawn shops had sprung up upon the pavements and the ancient department stores opened by the British were now doing a roaring business, selling automatic wheelchairs, licensed youngblood and chip-embedded smart chamber pots which analysed and kept stock of urine output with an option to share the data on Fossilbook – the old people’s social network.
The Darkland Areas Authority had let this neighbourhood be used for catering to the needs of the elderly, shifting administrative offices to the east of the city where there was less water scarcity and a regular delivery of fresh food from Cleanland.
“It’s very hot today, isn’t it?” Henry said. They were walking towards the square, negotiating doddering men roaming aimlessly, their empty eyes bereft of the will to live.
“We will have rains later in the evening.”
Henry looked thoughtfully at the signboards of care homes along the street, “You have to see what I brought with me. And perhaps then only we should talk.’
“Your soul ticket, sir?” a young woman with bright blue eyes had stopped them. She was wearing a protector’s white uniform. An automatic weapon was slung on her shoulder.
Captain Old recognised the dishbaby immediately. He had seen her at the station, the night before. Must be from a new batch, he told himself, because he had never seen that bluish glow in their eyes.
Henry had stopped in his tracks. He looked at Krava-4 with a mix of amusement and distaste and was going to say something when Old cut in. “He is a Cleanlander.’
Krava-4 turned to face Old. “And you? Do you have authorisation to have intercourse with a Cleanlander?”
“What?” Old realised she meant social intercourse. She could create a lot of trouble for them if she wanted. He couldn’t let the situation escalate, so he said, “I am not with him. We just happened to be walking in the same direction. I was trying to help out a tourist.’
“Is that true?” she asked Henry.
He nodded grimly.
“Huh! A tourist? What kind of splice is that? Are you an improved version of the sonmis that malfunctioned? But you don’t seem to be functioning too well, are you?’
It looked like Henry’s eyes would pop off their sockets.
“I don’t want to get into this but the Cleanlander here is a bloodbaby and not a splice. He is a tourist, he is here to check out our country.”
Krava-4 listened and nodded slowly. She seemed to understand and turned to face Henry. “I hope this is true,” she studied their faces, “now run and I don’t want to see the two of you together again.”
They were nearing the river which had swelled over the decades taking with it the High Court building and the Town Hall. From the eastern edge of the Martyrs’ Square, they could see rusty stateboats skimming across the surface of the river, powered by black market diesel.
“Of course. I am waiting to see what you got. Otherwise I wouldn’t have responded to your message and taken the trouble to receive you at the station. But I don’t buy that story of the lost antidote,” Old said, as they crossed a street and went down to the river bank.
There were many people sitting here. Old men and women, hordes of the jobless, confidence tricksters with eagle eyes, out-of-job actors dressed like Mongol invaders, and bartermen with their assorted stock of Cleanland puff pipes, mouldy long loaf, three-headed hilsas, Tibetan wheat and millet, stolen prosthetics, memory pills, and pilfered youngblood.
A crowd had gathered at the water’s edge watching a juggler showing his tricks. The churches and the railway godowns had all been washed away and the black water that flowed ceaselessly towards the bay carried no memories of all that it had taken with it. Not even that of the city’s founder which had vanished in the hungry currents.
Captain Old and the Englishman stood on the half-sunk pavement beside the neo-classical pile of Governor’s Care Home and watched the young juggler from a distance. People crowded around him, thieves who had fallen in love with nurses, boatmen and freshface couples, their buttery skin glowing in the evening light.
He was just a boy. Fresh faced with limpid brown eyes. A tattered red jersey embroidered with a Manchester United logo over an outsized khaki short. With his two little hands he was juggling five long bones white as chalk. The bones flew through the air returning to his practised grip and the crowd cheered “Hurrah!” throwing at the little boy pieces of mouldy bread and ration shop toffees.
The femurs and tibias flew in a circle, rising and falling through the amber light, the girders of the half-sunk Bridge 3 gleamed like the silvery scales of an aquatic monster, trapped in the poison river while Henry began to tell Captain Old about his friend, the Indian geneticist Tanmoy Sen, and what happened that day when the end-of-the-world fog had wrapped itself around his small English town.
Excerpted with permission from The Butterfly Effect, Rajat Chaudhuri, Niyogi Books.