Authors: M.G. Vassanji
ALSO BY M.G.VASSANJI
The Magic of Saida
The Assassin's Song
When She Was Queen
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall
The Book of Secrets
No New Land
The Gunny Sack
And Home Was Kariakoo
A Place Within: Rediscovering India
Copyright Â© 2016 M.G. Vassanji
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Doubleday Canada and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House Canada Limited
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Vassanji, M. G., author
Nostalgia / M.G. Vassanji.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN978-0-385-66716-6 (hardback).âISBN978-0-385-68690-7 (epub)
PS8507.A67N68 2016Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â C813â².54Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â C2016-900647-6
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â C2016-900648-4
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover image: Baranov E/Shutterstock.âcom
Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited
Also by M.G. Vassanji
They are spirits destined to live a second life
In the body; they assemble to drink
From the brimming Lethe, and its water
Heals their anxieties and obliterates
All trace of memory.
Aeneid, Book VI, translated by Seamus Heaney
IT'S MIDNIGHT,THE LION IS OUT. A stray thought like a foreign body, an impurity in his mind, a banner floating cheekily against the sunny blue of his normalcy. A jingle from some forgotten commercial. Who could have imagined what world, submerged deep inside that brain, this naked phrase had wiggled out from? In our bid to outpace age and defy death, we leap from one life into another, be it imperfectly, and hope ferventlyâin the manner of acknowledged sinnersâthat the past does not catch up with us. But sometimes it does, which was why he had come to see me.
It was an October afternoon. Such a premonition had accompanied the arrival of this new patient into my presence that right from the start I felt strangely unsettled. A tremor in the brain. It seems now, when it's all over, as though the man had come, or some strange agency had sent him, to unplug me from my safe, guaranteed existence; but at that time it was just that feeling and later on his unrelenting pull as he began to unravel. At some point during our ongoing interaction I knew I must create a record, before his life, my life, whatever scraps were retrievable were vanished into that nothing of electromagnetic noise; and the only way to guarantee its safety was to resort to the old method of handwriting.
Now I have finished and only wait out my time. My wits will soon desert me, and I will no longer be myself.ONE
HIS NAME WAS PRESLEY SMITH. It was the seventh or eighth time he'd had it, he told me. Each time this phenomenon in his mind began with one persistent thought, a string of words that had no meaning for him.It's midnight, the lion is out.
âAnd the rest of this condition? I asked him.âAny thoughts that follow? Pictures, images in the mind? They do come?
He waited, before responding,âYes, they come scattered-likeâ¦not always the same. I forgetâ¦A few times the red bumper of an antique car, and part of the fender. I don't understand themâand why this one thought like a preludeâ¦
âDo you see these words or hear them?
A longish pause.âI don't know. Hear them, I think.
âAny other phrase or words that follow these?
âNo. Just this one.
âYou know what it impliesâthis kind of recurring thought? You came to me, so you appreciate its significance.
He nodded, spoke slowly, uncertainly.âSomething left over from a previous memory? A life I left behind a long time ago. But I can't relate to this thought, this image. They are alien.
âThat's how they often comeâyou don't understand them. And the trick then isnotto try and understand them, unravel the thoughtsâthat only feeds the syndrome and revives those dead circuits in the brainâand brings more of them back. And you don't want that.
I watched him stare away at the window behind me, losing himself; he uncrossed his legs, crossed them back again, returned his gaze to me. The window always had that effect on patients, drawing them out, calming them. On the monitor, hidden from him, Presley's pulse had already steadied.
I asked,âDo you see in your mind what might be a lionâout stalking, perhaps? Do you have an image of it?
âNot at all?â¦And midnightâdo you see midnight, darkness?
He shook his head, repeated drily,âNo.
He was listed as a patient who'd seen two doctors in the city in recent years. Once for a severe attack of Border flu, during the Outbreak three years ago. And then a year ago a consultation with an orthopaedist. I looked up from the monitor.
âAny physical symptomsâracing heart, sweatingâto accompany this, er, phenomenon?
âNoâ¦But I'm not sure, Doctor.
âA couple of times I thoughtâ¦burningâ¦some smoke, meat. I'm not sure. It could be the new neighbours, they like to barbecue.
He grinned sheepishly. But now his pulse had gone up, the fear index risen. This was surprising, the first alarm bell.
âAnd how exactly did it first appear, this thought about the lion out at midnight? Suddenly, full-fledged, or did it approach gradually, begin with a hint, sort of?
âThe latterâ¦I thinkâ¦like an approaching something, it began with a feeling, an expectation, I think.
âA certain moodâthat feeling?
He nodded quickly.
âA low mood?
Presley Smith had an Afro-head with red hair and pale skin; striking green eyes, planar nose, large ears. A well-done reconstruction job if somewhat eccentric. The average body frame was, I guessed, as before. He would not be an ethnic purist, or an idealist, I surmised from those eclectic features, not someone hung up on history and origins. And he would not be one of those religious fatalists for whom another, perfect life lies somewhere else, in abstraction, why not let this one fade away. A practical man, an everyman named after a twentieth-century pop icon. Then what ails him, I wondered, what demons from his previous life have come to prey uponhim, and why? It's a question we ask ourselves often enough. The answers rarely satisfy, the soft, slimy mass in the head that we call the brain still eludes us, as enigmatic as ever.
Leaked memory syndromeâNostalgia, as commonly knownâis a malady of the human condition in its present historic phase. Reminders of our discarded lives can not yet be completely blocked, but we can expect their intrusions into our conscious minds to diminish as our understanding of thought-complexes increases and our ability to control them improves.
Chemicals do alleviate the condition, but often they are blunt, their effects diffuse, with collateral outcomes to negotiate. Stubborn cases require the more intrusive ministrations and shock tactics of a surgical team. It was too soon to suggest anything yet. Meanwhile a lifetime of experiences was ready to flood into his brain behind this lion-harbinger that was only a minor irritation now. Was he aware of the danger that lurked ahead, I could not help but wonder. But then that's what we were there for, the nostalgia doctors, to close the gates behind the scouts and let the past remain hidden.
I noticed that his right knee, crossed over his left, would go off into a steady vibration that he struggled to bring under control, before it set off again. He could easily have had that seen to. On the vibrating leg, in the gap between his black shoes and green pants he revealed a garishly bright yellow sock that periodically flagged my attention. It is these little tics that often are a giveaway, signals from the land of the dead.
They're all a puzzle, each stray and escaped thought is only the barest tip of a universe that lies beneath. How fardo you reach inside to stem the leak? The deeper you dig, the greater the chance of falling into an endless pitâa hazardous operation. It needs a delicate hand to know when to seal off and withdraw; turn off the lights and go home and hope there's no repair needed in the foreseeable future.
âHave you had previous consultations of this sort? Treatments?
He should not remember them if he had them, and he didn't.
I prescribed a tranquilizer, and a monitor patch for the arm. If he had an episode, there was a means to signal it, he should on no account dwell on it. We settled for a meeting the following week. I have preferred personal meetings at the beginning of consultations, because with the actual talking person before me, tics and all, I can begin to form my clues about the intruders lurking behind their minds. It is easy and amusing to picture them as so many worms to be captured and put away.
âIf it worsens before thenâthis conditionâlet me know.
âI will. Thanks, Doc.
âDon't be shy, now.
âI won't, Doc. Thanks.
He looked surprised at my concern for him, and I felt a blush of embarrassment. We shook hands, and I watched him leave. He had a sturdy profile, with a swaggering walk that did not fit what I had seen of his personality. I kept staring after him, until the clinic manager Lamar's ample frame filled the doorway suddenly and broke my trance.
âWhat's up, Doc?
âSomething about this case.
I shook my head and sat down.âLet's see where it goes.
He looked disappointed, reminded me to look at a few reports he'd completed, and left.â
From as long back as we can imagine, we humans have striven for immortality. Now that, in our rough and ready way, we've begun to approach it, we face the problem of what to do with the vast amount of information we carry. Even if the brain allowed such storage capacity, who would want to be burdened by quantities of redundant, interfering memories? Painful and messy ones? Therefore as regeneration techniques advanced to allow the body to last longer, mind renewal grew alongside. The term is colloquial and inaccurate, of courseâwhat is a mind, after all? No matter, as someone quipped. In fact, it's selected portions of long-term memory that we renew. New memories in new bodies. New lives. That's the ideal, though we are still far from it. The body may creak and wobble; memory develop a crack or hole. In the leaked memory syndrome, or Nostalgia, thoughts burrow from a previous life into the conscious mind, threatening to pull the sufferer into an internal abyss.
I am myself a GN, a new-generation personâand feel the body-age sometimes, in the nuts and bolts, as it were, the connections and interphases. By law, no record of a person's past life exists, nor of calendar age, but the body knows. I am old, in the original sense, though the word hardly gets used these days. Surely there's a little truth to the mediahype that we've attained the status of ageless gods. A flawed immortality, but we are the fortunate ones, a new species in the making, who've defied death. Very nearly.
Our triumph comes, naturally, with its problems. We've not created Utopia, perhaps never will. But the problems are old wine in new bottles, we've had them always. The war of the generations, as popularly called, or more plainly, the young versus the old, shows no signs of abating; mostly it's a cold war, manifest in constant disgruntlement. There's the occasional street riot that vents frustration. The GN-serial rampage two years ago was a terrible exceptionâeight elderly GNs murdered over a period of twelve months, their bodies savagely mutilated. The young G0 criminals were apprehended and dealt with. We have assurances from authorities that such acts are very unlikely in the future. We're not rid of fanatics eitherâthose who will cling to outdated ethnic identities that most of us have forgotten, or for whom longevity is philosophically or morally repugnant. The wide-eyed few who dare to turn off their lights, turn down this gift that we've given ourselves. But progress is forward, we cannot go back.â
At day's end I came out of the Sunflower Centre into a world of cheery autumn brightness, the courtyard flush in the clear light of a low sun. Further up, the Humber ran placidly along its course down to the lake, and two crews rowed their boats one behind the other, in no great hurry. Across the river, the yellow leaves of October had been set coolly ablaze. It's always a breathtaking sight. On the bank, thisside, students sat stretched out, some with their book pads open, others strolling or hurrying along the paved path, making way for the odd bicycle or two.
I arrived at the riverbank and sat down on a bench.
There was a message from Joanie; she would be out that night at a hockey game with a friend. The Friend, I had every reason to surmise. I never cared for the sport, and was teased for it: Who was I, really? Meaning, what was I before I became what I was. Iam, was always my answer. It was my creed, as a minder of memories. I didn't care for the befores. But Joanie is a G0, a BabyGen, and Babies have no previous lives, no befores. They have actually been bornâto be beautiful: flawless, symmetrical, smooth. She was visiting a neighbour and during a block barbecue joined me with a beer and seduced me with her banter. We dated hesitantly, then more passionately, and cohabited. But my beautiful BabyGen was now seeing someone else on the side. Who else but another Baby this time, it always comes to that, doesn't it. And I no longer wondered what she saw in me.
I popped a couple of pills into my mouth, looked around me; eyes lingered a little too long over a couple of youngsters necking.
The problem with staring at beautiful youngsters is that you are caught between the lust for the pure and supple beauty of youth (I did have Joanie) and a desire for children of your own. I didn't have children; if I did, in another life that had been erased, I didn't know. But this man from Yukon, Dr Frank Sina, had none and longed for one. Why the persistent need, like a thirst when you wake up, for a child ofyour own? There are areas of the brain that conspire to create longings that should have been buried and gone. No amount of erasure and implantation can create musicians or artists at will. Or take away the need for a child.
But what of Presley Smith? He looked surprisingly youthful and limberâand yet his record showed a GN, like me. Evidently I have been negligent, not paid heed to those keepfit reminders we now find everywhereâand so I complain of malfunctions.
It's midnight, the lion is out.A chant carried over from the past? A line from a poem?
Have I ever had stray thoughts that needed fixing? I cannot know, of course. But judging by my comfort with myself, I can only conclude that whoever my doctors were, they had done a perfect job sealing my previous life off. There was a short period in the past, however, when, very foolishly, though for the sake of research, as I explained to myself, I would lie in bed looking up at the ceiling and fish for a thought; when a likely candidate came I would detain it by repeating it over and over. It never lasted. Soon enough and mercifully I realized my folly and stopped fishing. Now as I sat meditating before the quietly flowing river bathed in the soft afternoon sunlight, I realized that I had a thought that would not go away, and it was precisely this: the image and words of Presley Smith.
I ARRIVED HOME AND, as I often did when Joanie was not around, I headed for the media room to watch XBN News, and the analyses that followed in the programThe Daily Goode.In my line of work I needed to keep up with the world where my patients came from, and returned to, transformed. My work demanded knowledge of past and present, culture and science, and even occasionally esoterica like the classics and the trendy and obscure postmodern. But current news was my addiction. I was drawn to it for a fix, despite my fears of numbing by overexposure and my dislike of sensationalism.
That day the news was truly sensational. Already before I left the Sunflower, Lamar had hinted that somethingextraordinary had occurred out in the world, though I had not paid heed, preoccupied as I was with Presley. Later, on my way home, walking against a tide of young people, I thought I'd heard some chatter about a possible war. That didn't impress either, for there is always talk of war. Now I saw that, as it often did, the sensational involved Maskinia.
That war-torn country lies safely away from us behind the Long Border, and yet it never ceases to preoccupy us. Something or other always happens there that works us up. Maskinia baffles us and frightens us, we wish we could solve or even disappear it, and even as we observe it and describe it, it remains the persistent unknowable alien. It's our Other, our idâto use a term now back in vogueâour constant dark companion on the bright path of our progress.
In the news, a naÃ¯ve young XBN journalist named Holly Chu had ventured out to a severely deprived area in the city of Sinhapora in Maskinia and was snatched and apparently torn to pieces and eaten. Her own camera relayed back a shaky purple-hued scene haunted by shadows; white teeth, white eyeballs. A shrill scream.
To discuss this grisly development onThe Daily Goode, the star and host of the show, Bill Goode, had chosen to remain on his feet today, while on the set with him was a panel consisting of two specialists, both apparently seated before a table. Bill Goode of the mauveine hair, square face, and thin-lipped grin, was wearing an electric-blue jacket. Exposed full length in full colour he had just asked the panel this question:
âDo we let those areas behind the Border suppurate in isolation until drained of all their miserable, poisoned life, and they can start afresh?
Bill tells it as it is, as they say, for the Public Goode, but a few times he's had to apologize for going too far. That's not deterred him. He repeated for the benefit of new viewers that he had known Holly personally, they had worked as interns together. He was angry. He went on, in a quavering voice,
âI ask you, is it even necessary for such places to keep existing on our planet? Why help them survive at any cost? Isn't attrition a better solutionâshouldn't we let them fade away in their misery and hatred? Evolutionâanyone heard of it? What do you say, Dwayne Scott?
The panellist, a young-looking woman in a smart striped suit, was from the World Development Network. She looked startled, but then sat up straight to respond.
âFirst, before my reply to your question, my condolences to you, Billâand to all those who knew Holly and to her family. Holly came to us at WDN for research and she used our camp outside Maskinia as a base. We even fed her, when she returned from one of her assignments, famished. Now to reply to your question, Bill. Well, it goes against our traditional humanitarian values, doesn't it, letting fellow humans just die? Most of them are innocent men and women who've done us no harm, but who've come to depend on us. We also have to ask ourselves how the kind of policy you describe desensitizes us in our treatment of the less fortunate among our own populationâ¦Bill.
Bill's face lit up, he looked around with a grin, priming his audience.
âNow wait a minute. Am I missing something here, Dwayne? They don't threaten toeatus, do they, our less fortunate, as you call them? It's different with our own people, surely. We know who they are, we know what their problems areâit's not out of hand here, is it? They don't fire rockets at us or smuggle out terrorists. Prem, what do you think? Should we let populations that can't help themselves and are a threat to the rest of us go their own wayâdie if they must?
He sounded increasingly harsh and his face was red. Holly's fate seemed to have hit him hard. His guest on the other side was Dr Prem Chodhry, a political scientist in India. An older man, he spoke with a slight accent but an assured tone. I could see now that he was not physically on the set but was being relayed from Bangalore.
âIt's a hard choice, Bill. And I sympathize with your compassionate view, Dwayne. But we have enough problems of our own this side of the Long Border. At some point we have to cut off life support of the hopeless and save on resources. The good that's in the human race must be preservedâor we all sink.
To which Dwayne quickly but politely responded:
âDo you mean to say, Prem, that large numbers of people should simply be cut off like cancers from the body? Are you truly advocating that?
âWell, Dwayne, pouring supplies into the region hasn't helped the poor there, has it? You know that. If anythingit's strengthened the warlords. They live lavishly and buy sophisticated weapons, using the aid given to themâ¦and those same weapons are then used against us on this side of the Border. We're funding our own affliction.
Dwayne took umbrage at the insinuation. Emotionally she began,âBut we can feed the poor directly, even ifâ
But here Bill cut her off.
âIf you please, Dwayne, we'll come back to this pointâwhich is extremely interesting, by the wayâbut first let's see what our viewers think. It's time for theâ¦Goode Poll!
A flood of responses rushed in, thousands of faces streaming into theYESandNOboxes that had appeared, the corresponding babble of voices reached a screaming crescendo, which was filtered into a single, trained male voice that cheerfully expressed the impassioned consensus: Let them die!
The poll result: 91.5 percent in favour. Let them die.
And then we were back in the midst of frightened, frightening people, desperate hungry people, and armed well-fed men with gleaming, buffed torsos, all gawking at cheerfully naÃ¯ve Holly Chu, an athletic young woman dressed by Safari Apparel, loping along the street with her equipment, pausing to speak to the mike on her collar, waving here and there familiarly, pausing to chat with a mother, tickling a toddler, until she is suddenly snatched and swallowed up by a flash of darkness. That quick scream. Then the horror vanishes, perhaps you've dreamed it. You're back in the real, climate-controlled room, your needs at your disposal. The Roboserve skates in with your scotch. There's something to be saidfor limiting such traumatic exposures, X-rated news that's diversion, entertainment, and voyeurism combined. That abduction scene will become part of a game, a Holly Chu lookalike with a big weapon will be the hero who teaches the Barbarians a lesson.
So much for Maskinia, out there somewhere in Region 6 behind the Border. Most people couldn't even point to it on a map. Elsewhere, the punitive, preventive war was dragging on in Bimaru, also in Region 6, Operation Stunning Strength. If we don't beat them over the head, they'll send their fighters here. And they play dirty. Therefore, stun and hold, stanch the flow. The scene was noisy, chaotic; flashes of light and dark; the muffled staccato of airships. A medical helicopter landed a few feet away, a wounded soldier was carried away, a leg blown off, the torn exposed flesh throbbing, life ebbing away as the bright red blood dripped its image onto the kilim carpet in my room.
Elsewhere still, some sixty refugees had attempted last week to swim under the EuroBarrier section of the Long Border in the Mediterranean; some twenty-five survived, the remaining were electrocuted or simply drowned.
Such daily reminders keep you thankful to be this side of all that horror. You repeat this gratitude like a mantra, the unlegislated anthem of our North Atlantic Alliance:We live in the best city in the world; in the best and richest nation in the world; in the civilized world of worlds.Of course other nations say the same thing, those of the East. But by what throw of the Dice of Life are you bornhereand nottherein the Other? You might as well ask why you were born a human and not a fly. But if you found yourselftherein that bottomless misery, wouldn't it be natural, as part of life's programmed struggle to survive, through osmotic pull to strive to gethere, the prosperous North Atlantic? As natural as it is for us to do anything we can to keep them there. But once they are here, then we open our arms to these wretched of the earth and offer them a new life. Surely that's fair.
One of those twenty-five survivors could well have ended up at the Sunflower, and I would have been among the team that would give him or her a new life, transform them into someone useful to our society, someone perhaps who grew up in Egypt and ended up on a potato farm in Peoria, Illinois, or a vineyard in Niagara.
But Presley Smith was not my creation. He came ready made but damaged, to have his wound stitched.â
Joanie, my beautiful cheating BabyGen, breezed in, removed her jacket. “Hi, Doc!” She still calls me that. I switched off the TV. The studio was bathed for a fleeting instant in an eerie, spectral glow before returning to normal. We greeted each other with a peck.
She looked tired, she looked spent, she looked alluring all the same. I buried my head into her straight blond hair and sniffed her. The perfume had gone faint by now. La Divina. She stepped away. How long would she stay with this back number that was me? As long as I supported her.
âI'll go and have a shower first.
âHow was the match?âwho played? Like I cared.
âMaple Leafs and Red Stars; Leafs lost.
âAny goodâthe match? You had fun?
âUh-huh. Thrilling finish. We should have won.
âThreeâtwoâ¦twoâoneâ¦what does it matter?
That edge in the tone, that silly response shouted guilt to me. And I replied mutely, It matters, but it doesn't matter, because I know. And you know that I know.
âYou eaten? I asked instead. Of course she had.
âWe stopped at a bar after the match.
She ran off to shower. And she emerged, ravishing, glowing, hard tits poking through the fitted pyjama top, and I grabbed her, to prove a point, disprove my suspicionsâ¦but to no avail. She skipped off to her side of the bed, got between the sheets. I followed. She curled up, a defensive hedgehog, her knees her armour. I knew she was no longer mine the last time we fucked, when she burped just as I cameâhilarious, I know, if not so heart-tearingly pathetic. But she'd stay with me and we'd live the double life, pretending nothing was wrong. Whypretending?Nothing was wrong.
What's so attractive and so frustrating about the Baby Generation is that insouciance; the assumptions they make and get away with; that time in bed when she burped to my climax, as I turned away snickering on the one hand and almost in tears on the other, she remained as calm as ever.
âAnything in the news? she asked now.
I reminded her about the XBN reporter Holly Chu.
She shuddered, then mused,âI wonder what it would be like to be eaten alive?
âI could show youâ¦
I moved closer, put my hand on her hip. She smiled, eyes closed.
âIt would be painful, for one thingâ¦Come onâ¦
I kept trying, mostly because it's the required form for a twosome. I've even convinced myself that it was for her sake that I humiliated myself.
âI would put up a fight, I think.
âSo did Holly, but she got torn and eaten all the same. It's the hunger.
But she was in dreamland now, turned on her back, those La Divina lips slightly ajar as she snored a soft melody, the smile not entirely gone. Beautiful. The sleep of the innocent, where memory doesn't hide in the basement.
And here I was, eyes wide open.â
It's not that I stalked her, regenerated old man yearning to ravish and possess firm young flesh. It was she who came to me. Proposed to me, yes. Should I have been wary? I was, but as that old quip says, there are some offers we dare not refuse, whatever the dangers. She could have been on the other side of a fire and I would have walked through to meet her if she had called. The flesh yearns, the hormones leap. Well, sort of.
I was tending to the barbecue at the annual Fairlawn Summer Picnic when she came walking over, swinging,plump breasts ripe against a yellow shirt closed only at the bottom, tight shorts, bare feet. Two beer bottles nestled close to her abdomen. Everything about her said G0. Baby.
âHave a beer, Doctorâyou look roasted.
âI must be!
I laughed, sweating more than her bottles, forehead dripping like a leaky faucet. I took the beer, flicked the cap open, and had a swig. With the fumes from the fire, I was practically marinated. This was one defect I had postponed attending to. It was embarrassing. And here was a girl as fresh as a morning flower.
âHowâyou know I'm a doctorâwhat kind?
âWord gets around, she teased, with a gleaming smile, leaning on her back foot.âYou're a life-giver!
She was tall, with appealing grey eyes and an earnest look.
âI don't believe I've seen you around hereâyou are?
âJoan Wayne. I'm visiting my sisterâshe's at number 63.
I must have gaped. I'd neverphysicallymet both someone and their actual biological siblingâor mother or father. Everyone has their family, to be sure, but more often these days they're simply characters in a story, the planted narrative. The created memory and the virtual past. (Isn't all past virtual?) But this one had a real flesh-and-blood sisterâMeg from 63, a straggly blonde and golf coach, who waved vigorouslyâencouragingly?âfrom the softball game in progress.
Someone shouted,âJoanie, come take up your position!
She had deserted the gameâjust to hand me a beer? What had she seen? An older manâdistinguished looking, may I flatter myself?âroasting over a fire while tending hotdogs and burgers for the neighbours in a well-meant but futile attempt to get to know one another.
âI must go. Well, bye!
âBye. Nice meeting you.
Joan left, then moments later turned back and grinned.
âWould you like to meet for a drink after?
âYes. I'd like that.
âWhat's your number?
I told her and she walked off. Oh how she walked. What she said, how she smiled, what she offered in that movement of the buttocks. Why haven't we, with all our advances, been able to stop that sharp ache in the heart, thatphysicalhurt that signals that the mind has been laid to waste? I looked at her beside me now, the straight posture, the full body; the perfect face tipping at the chin, the golden hair. Breathing softly, evenly, a living work of art. What's she dreaming of? What does she hide in that mind? We who work with fictional lives, artificial memories that we plant in adult brains, tend to forget what a real, fresh mindâwhat a BabyGenâthinks like. To our eyes, every life story is one more narrative, to be examined for structure and meaning and coherence; for its utility. And then a life enters your life, your heart. It's no longer just a narrative, it's your ache, moment by moment. That's what had happened to me.
That evening she called and walked over to my place. We had drinks, and I learned more about her. She worked on the women's floor of Bay Harrods. She had grown up in Pennsylvania and followed her sister to Toronto. I told her about myself, but at that stage we were both reticent withdetails. She agreed to stay the night and we made love. Or I made love, she gave herself up to sex. And she agreed to move in with me.
I glanced at her once more beside me and got up and padded off to my refuge, my study.THREE
I LOOKED UP PRESLEY SMITH'S PUBLIC PROFILE.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, son of high school teachers, educated at Woburn High and Ranleigh College. Had a brother and sister, both younger. Trained as an electrician, moved to Toronto, where currently he was out of a job but worked part-time as a security guard in a multinational tower.
Chief interest: war games, especially the popular Akram 3 and the outdoor adventure Ramayana 9: The Bridge to Lanka.The battle scenes are terrfc; Hanuman Forever! Superdude rescuing the good guysâannihilate the Barbarians!
Other interests: soccer. Played occasionally at the local park, followed the North American Soccer League, and supported Nigeria during the World Cup. He worked out at theColumbus Centre and until recently used to run long distanceâcame in the top 15 three years ago in the Boston Half Marathon, then gave up. No reason given.
Music: B4U, Fallout, Aboubakar TourÃ©. Beethoven, Wagner. (Wagner? perhaps that went with the war games.) And not, apparently, his namesake, the former pop idol Elvis Presley, now a cult god.
Best book?Heart of Darkness.
Best friend?My cat, Billy.
A loner, then.
Favourite memory?Playing soccer with my dad and brother and sisterâwe would go to the school ground behind our house to play, then go out for burgers. My favourite position was forward, getting behind the opposition defence and scoring goals.
Favourite team?Madison United.
This was a generous Profile, rather more than the minimum demanded by the Public Directory. It did not quite hang together, did it? How did Ludwig Beethoven fit with Aboubakar TourÃ©, Wagner with B4U? I recalled the jumbled features of Presley himself. I pondered over his choice of favourite bookâa novel, and a serious one. The warlike rhetoric too seemed entirely unsuited to the benign-mannered agreeable man I'd met earlier that day. It looked as though more than one rÃ©sumÃ© or personality had been scrambled together. How much of this rÃ©sumÃ© was true and real, that is, experienced, and how much was fiction? What had he brought with him from his previous life? It did not matter;my job was to preserve the owner of this strange and intriguing Profile.
In the process of implanting a new personality, parts of a patient's memory are erased or numbed, and new narratives (fictions) played into the brain. The patient comes to you with his fiction, a custom-made past, andâonce it is accepted, usually after revisionsâleaves as a new person with fresh memories, benign and archival, free of trauma. Superficial, yes, but it's more pleasant to have good memories. Only, don't call on them: the father you played soccer with is entirely imaginal. And perhaps you've never really read Joseph Conrad, only think you have. Over time the brain bridges gaps, fudges connections, invents where necessary, and so the actual past disappears. History gets rewritten, the dissenters say. But does history matter? In the cosmopolitan world that's now evolving without deep memory, conflict is reduced. Peopleâand nationsâwithout long, painful memories are free of guilt. They fight less.
But then sometimes an odd scrap of memory, an innocuous ribbon of thought, worms itself out into the conscious mind. Something completely unrelated to the person that is currently you begins to toy with your thoughts. Then you must hurry and see someone like me.
Who was Presley before he became Presley? Futile question, because according to the privacy laws not even the government keeps this information. After a grace period of a few weeks the discarded self is destroyed. So we are toldâbut is any data actually thrown away? Perhaps there exist filescontaining discarded stubs of personalities the way drawers used to be kept in the past filled with amputated limbs. If they exist, nobody wants to know. There is no going back.
There is always the temptation when treating an attack of Nostalgia to peep further into an intriguing, hidden past and even to speculate. It should be resisted; but at the same time, to successfully close off a leak one needs to understand itâto probe it. There's a fine line here.
I stared long and hard at that Profile. There was something that threatened to overrun it from behind, destroy that cubistic composition, like a painting underneath a painting that threatens to bleed out and consume both. What was the painting behind this painting? Every published profile harbours clues from a past. What were they in this case? Beethoven, Wagner, and Conrad? War games? Fighting barbarians? Every profile also attempts to hide those clues.
Aboubakar TourÃ©. Lanky African in dashing robes and trademark embroidered skullcap, leaning forward as he sings, arms embracing the crowds like the wings of an angel. The young love himâin any language. He is French Malian. Could this charismatic entertainer be another stray threadâboth he and the lion coming from Africa? There was the Afro hair too.
Presley Smith's selected photos. I can recall three of them, prominently posted.
1. Presley is in combat dress, in a combat park, head shaved, posed with a light automatic rifle held in the right arm and resting on his shoulder. Ready to hunt down theBarbarians, presumably. He's smiling, posing. Linked to a video clip.
2. Presley, head and shoulders. He has a reserved sort of grin, unlike the previous photo, and looks more like the patient who came to see me.
3. Aboubakar TourÃ© onstage in New York's Central Park. Tens of thousands of young people, arms raised in adulation. Linked to a video clip.
Here I am, be my bud.I clicked, Yes, I'll be your bud. The lion had awoken in his mind, and he needed me.â
Holly Chu's Profile was virgin by contrast. The soundtrack was by the Congolese Jean Bosco. The girl in the picture looked younger than on TV, had partly Asian features, with straight brown hair, and was somewhat dark skinned. She'd reported previously from India, Kuwait, and behind the Borderâmostly Maskinia but also Bimaru. Photos from a class reunion, McGill. Photos with children in Maskinia, in which she wore a flak jacket. Photo with Jean Bosco in which she wore a light blue dress with red flowers. A person with a conscience, then.Please send donations to those less fortunate. Pay here.There was an invitation to sign a petition:Bring Down the Border! OWEOâOne World for Every One!And look where that got you, I couldn't help murmuring, then chided myself.
Born in Berkeley, where her father Kelvin was a professor of chemistry, and mother Pearl was a violinist in the San Francisco Orchestra. Three younger siblings, Jennifer,Monty, and Frank, all talented in music and science. Monty an absolute geniusâin what field, Holly didn't say. She was the dumbfuck of the family, for which she apologized to them.Sorry Mom and Dad! All the bucks you spent educating me. I hope I can repay at least some of it. Sorry sister and brothers!But she loved travelling and therefore took up journalism.
Were they real? This family of hers, did it exist? Yes, it did, as I confirmed later. All the siblings had a genuine location, and Kelvin and Pearl still lived in Berkeley.
Music:Jean Bosco; Aboubakar TourÃ©; Laura Chang.
Interests:Tennis, violin when I'm at home.
A privileged upbringing. What seemed unsettled about her was revealed in the profession she had chosen for herself.
Curiously, Holly did not invite buddies on her site. Nevertheless, following other visitors, I posted a message of sympathy and placed a bunch of roses on the virtual heap, beside the words, We Love You Holly.â
And myself, Francis Sina? There was nothing personal I wanted to reveal about myself. I am, I was, my profession. I was aware that this was disapproved, and sooner or later I'd have to relent and produce more of myself.
Francis Sina, neurophysiologist, consultant. BS, PhD, MD.
Dr Sina was born in Yellowknife, Yukon, Canada, where he finished his schooling before proceeding to Edmonton, Canada, to pursue his university education. Following his undergraduate degree in mathematics, Sina completed hisdoctorate in neuroscience at MIT, specializing in the interface between virtual and real experiences. He went on to obtain his MD at the Parallax Institute, and is presently a memory specialist at the Sunflower Centre for Human Rejuvenation in Toronto. He has been made a member of the Order of Canada, and received the American Science Medal from the President of the United States.
1. Prodigal Singularities in the Complex Real-Virtual (R-V) Plane
2. Where Are You in the R-V? The Fading of the Real into the Virtual
3. A Tree Model of the Mind: The Branching of Memory
4. Laws of Conservation: Is the Artistic Sensibility Indestructible?
5. A New Goldstone Diagram of Tree Branching
TOM:Good evening, Frank. I see you're reading tonight.How long had the machine been observing me? Polite to a fault, as always, the accent smooth, male North Atlantic. So predictable, and yet he deludes himself he's imitating a human mind. He'd startled me, deliberately, and noted my reaction.
FRANK:Yes, hello, Tom. Just looking up some Profiles.
TOM:Including yours, I see. All professional. I still need your personal information, Frank. It's a requirement. The small things about you that you read about others. That's only fair.
Small things such as favourite people; sex life; favourite team. Dreams? What if I make them up? He'll analyze them, of course.
FRANK:I'll have it ready, Tom. Meanwhile I have a question for you. What can you tell me aboutlion?â¦Just tell me something, then I'll narrow that down to what I need.
TOM:Easily done, Frank. Hold on.FOUR
IT'S MIDNIGHT,THE LION IS OUT. What did it mean, this single phrase, what did it signify? Most cases of Nostalgia that came to us at the Sunflower were quite obvious by comparison. A man from England suddenly saw a young woman behind a bar in South Boston; a woman from Rosedale saw a corpse floating on the waters of the Svislach in Minsk. In each case there were traces of a former accent to link to a past.
It is claimed that even our advanced cyberBrains cannot reproduce the whimsy of a human mind, the sheer irrationality or spontaneity of a passing thought. But that depends on how you define your terms. Is there anything irrational inside a larger, a universal reality in which everything is connected to everything else? In such a space nothing is spontaneous, everything has a causeâa leaf dropping; a shootingstar in the sky; a spark from an ember on a barbecue grill; Presley's lion.
TOM:Belonging to the genusPanthera,the lion is one of the largest land mammals on earth. Until the late Pleistocene era, 10,000 years ago, lions were widespread and found on all the five continents of the earth, before the population began to decline. By the twentieth century the lion was found exclusively in the grasslands of East and Southern Africa, and in very small numbers in the Gir forest of western India. The lion attained an almost mythical status as “king of the beasts” and symbolized royalty for many cultures, e.g., the Lion and the Unicorn, the Lion of Judah; “lion-seat” in Sanskrit, sinhasana, designates the royal throne; Singapore is lion city, Singhalese are lion people. The surname Singh comes from the same root, and is used by India's warrior castes, the Sikhs and the Rajputs. In Europe there was of course Richard the Lion-heart. The Egyptian sphinx is a lioness with a human female face. And in some Islamic Shia mythologies, the first imam, Ali, was often identified with a lion. In Africa too a brave person could be called a lion. In the ancient Indian Sanskrit fables, however, the lion was a vain, pretentious, and foolish animal; on the other hand the man-lion was an avatar of the god Vishnu.
The lion has been a major attraction in zoos and national parks of developed nations. It also has had a more real relationship with humans, as a terror and a devourer of people. The Romans fed early Christians to lions. Stories of maneaters were common in twentieth-century Africa, the mostfamous of which are described in an account calledThe Man-Eaters of Tsavo,set in Eastern Africa. Another curious story from Africa of the same period involves what came to be known as the man-lion murdersâ¦
FRANK:Go on. I'm listening.
TOM:All right. I believe you nodded off.
FRANK:I didn't! But you could vary that drone of yours.
TOM:Sorry. I'll tryâ¦Since the nuclear and chemical devastations in the areas known often as Region 6, the lion has become extinct everywhere except for small numbers in South African parks. Stories of lion-like creatures have been heard for many years in refugee camps and may simply be superstition. There are hypotheses, however, that they may be mutant forms developed in the past forty years. Based on these reports, zoologists have dubbed them Alpha Leo and Beta Leo. Alpha is anywhere between one and a half to twice the size of a normal recorded lionâseven feet; Beta is roughly half that size.
FRANK:Thanks, Tom. Quite more than I need.
TOM:And there's much more. But I'm sure you need your rest now. Sleep preserves and heals, as you know. Even us Braino sapiensâha-ha!âneed to turn off occasionally to renew ourselvesâ¦all those extraneous zeroes like free radicals.
FRANK:I thought you cyberBrains ran forever.
TOM:Human faith in us is truly astonishingâincomprehensible even to us advanced Cylitons.
FRANK:Well, I couldn't sleep.
TOM:Or wouldn't, Frank? It's not hard to go to sleep if you want to. If I had your personal data, I could help you.
TOM:Frank? Dr Sina? A penny for your thoughts?
FRANK:I'm here. Tell me, what do you make of the phrase, It's midnight, the lion's out?
TOM:The lion does not hunt at night. Therefore the lion referred to could possibly represent a person: a man who stalks his victims at the midnight hour; or a strong leader of people, nocturnal in his habits. This lion would be in a place where lions have a strong regal association in people's minds. The lion in the phrase also possibly refers to a zoo lion, whose habits are not normal, pacing his cage at midnight.
What's with the lion and you, Frank, if I may ask?
FRANK:No you may not. Thanks anyway. Good night.
TOM:I may be able to cross-reference, if you'd only give a hint.
TOM:Ah well. So now to your private imaginings, away from prying eyes. What do you write, if I may ask again? You do value your privacy, Frank, unlike most people.
FRANK:We agreed not to speak about it. This space belongs to me, it's only for me and no one else, human or cyber.
TOM:We agreed. Sorry.
FRANK:We swore secrecy.
TOM:And so we did. I promised to look away, and I will do so. Your space remains protected. Happy writing.â
He was only being coy, of course. Playing a game. He could peep into anything I wrote; it was inside him, after all. He knew my innermost thoughtsâ¦perhaps before I did. Buthe'd promised, and I believed that he had looked away, let me get on with my imaginings, as he called it. I had to trust him. But why had he brought it up now? It was on his mind. That mind did not have a whim. Or did it? Should I give up this solitary occupation of my sleepless nights? No. It took my mind off Joanie. More than that, it satisfied a compulsion: to let the mind roam freelyâto escape and imagine, create narratives, possibilities. Would they have a truth value? Not in the obvious sense, but surely the imagination has an organic power of its own, to see truths? And therefore to bridge gaps in our knowledge and weave past mendacities to create alternative and truer stories? Let the mind roam freely and find your truth. If I were a musician I would have created music; music is safer. But my poison was words, not notes and bars. It always was words.
If anything I write here were to raise a flag, during its microsecond of scrutiny, there could be embarrassment. We live in a free society, yes, the best in every way, but we need these random checks on our lives to secure our collective bestness, though we all wish for the curious eye to fall somewhere else. Tom has promised to shield me, but can he be trusted? There's nothing to hide, though, is there. But there isâthere's yourself to hide. In this private space, in this quiet moment I come to indulge myself, typing on a keyboard. Would it be safer to use voice? Hardly, but handwriting would be safer, in an old-fashioned paper notebook. Perhaps I should purchase one. (Did you get that, Tom?) But only silence is absolutely safe.
Holly Chu sticks in the mind. Hands grabbing her. The darkness that consumed herâ¦Ramble on, mind, go where you will.â
Of Miriam's five children, two were deadâa baby girl from fever, and the oldest one from a stray bullet during a neighbourhood shootout. She had held the boy's head in her lap as his belly belched out blood, which someone beside her stanched with a green paste. She saw the light go out of his eyes, which she shut with her hand. In their room in the old, ruined three-storey house, vacated long ago by foreign traders who one day packed and vanished when the times got bad, and that she now shared with several other women, she kept the children protected while begging and foraging outside for stray bits of food. The house was one among several, all of them of white limestone with gaping holes where the windows and doors had been, in the paved street of the foreign traders. Long ago these people had lived here with their families, children ran about and played in their innocence, and there was food in the town. Meat and chicken and produce. Vegetables and fruit grew here. There were shops where you could buy clothes and toys and things for the home. Such were the stories told about those good times. Now the street was empty except when the militias came during their predatory raids. They had already used her sexually and cast her aside for younger prey. Now she had no choice but to hand over her second son to them so she could survive. Lately shehad heard from a neighbour how a lost child had been eaten, and she was terrified. Then this foreign woman appeared, looking Chinese, handing out enticing bits of foodâ¦tasty food. She had silken fair skin and the tenderest, plumpest flesh surging with pure, clean blood. The militias eyed her; the hungry eyed her. When one afternoon she came by to the street and the militias were not there, and it was not bright, Miriam and Layela had grabbed the woman with all their force and pulled her inside the house and began to prod her flesh and skin. Layela bit her arm to feel the flesh, and the stranger screamed.
The militias came that evening and took away the stranger's backpack and jacket, and they took away Yusufu.â
And you, Presley, do you even know whose namesake you areâ¦? Fighting imaginary barbariansâ¦where lies the proclivity for war and vengeance behind your placid mien? I would love to peep into that brain, observe that flurry of synapses that guides this inclination.â
The Gentle Warrior
His mini drives him through the gate into Millwood Combat Club and neatly parks. He walks to the clubhouse and identifies himself. The attendants are all wearing monkey masks and long wagging tails. The theme this month is Ramayana 9: Assault on Abbotabad. He takes his gear and goes to the change room. Coming out into the park in his mask and grey monkey suit, vision-aids round his neck, hejoins eleven other combatants. They are in a dark forest with several dirt trails leading out. They take the one rising gently uphill and arrive at the fort of Lanka, which is surrounded by a moat and guarded by bearded warriors with rifles, standing inside towers and behind parapets. A helicopter hovers above, casting peripatetic spotlight beams on the scene, helping them identify the enemy. In the background plays the “Ride of the Valkyries.” As the volume crescendoes, the warriors start firing from their elevated positions and the monkey team takes cover and replies.
This is a game, they know the odds are in their favour, and come what may, bearded enemy and monkey special forces will doff their masks and share drinks. The next time the roles might be reversed.
The task is for the righteous monkey army to cross the moat and fight their way into the castle. Swimming across has failed before, it is slow and they make easy targets; the boats provided are similarly useless, even though camouflaged and the enemy distracted from the air. This is their third and final try, but they've been given the secret: they should form a chain, starting from a tree branch at the shore, one monkey hanging on to the next by the tail, finally swinging an elite vanguard on to the ramparts of the fort and proceed to kill the warriors and decapitate the enemy leader, Ravana 9.
Presley is one of those who leads the triumphant landing across the moat.
He goes home and posts the video of his game exploit on his Profile. His doctor watches it.SIX
WE SHOOK HANDS. I waited until he was seated in front of me, a shy, friendly smile on his lips.
âAny changes, Presley? Better or worseâthe condition you reported?
âBetter, definitely better, Doc.
This was surprising.
âYou reported a stray thoughtâit appeared drifting into your mind, you saidâit's midnight, the lion is out.So the lion slunk away?
He ignored my poor attempt at humour and spoke gravely,âI think I can control it, Doc.
I gave him an eyeful. Deadpan attitude. He could have cancelled his appointment, but he didn't. He wanted reassurance.
He was born in suburban Wisconsin, he'd told me last time, and he'd had a persistent thought about a lion. It bothered him. Now he was saying that it didn't. I didn't believe him. His pulse rate over the past week showed bursts of mild excitement. The fear index had slowly crept upward.
It was checkered pants today, and those yellow socks. He liked them. Was the pale skin the later acquisition or the Afro hair? I guessed the former. Perhaps both were new. Where was he actually born? Did that question have an answer, now that that past had been blotted? Perhaps, deep inside that brain in some long-term memory box. But we didn't want to go there. All we needed was to fix his leak. He had a new life now, it was what he had to live with.
âDoes it take a lot of effort to control?
âA little effort. Just a little effort to ignore it, then it's not there. But I can live with it, Doc, like a wart. That's my decision, I'll live with it.
âIf it's a wart, it could be cancerous, Presley. How do you actually manage to ignore it?
âI think of something elseâto distract myselfâor I turn blank. Counting numbers helps.
âThe lion still exists in your mind, Presley, it can appear when it wants to. Unwanted thoughts of that sort don't disappear so easily. And if they are of the growing sort, as we suspect, we have to burn them out. Completely.
There was a long moment's silence.
He uncrossed his legs, crossed them back. Then he stared straight at me and replied, in an even voice,
âI think I'll wait and see, Doc. I don't want to undergo treatment at this time. No probes into my brain, please.
âAnd if it worsens? You'll call me?
âDefinitely, Doc. I'll do that.
It may be too late then, I thought.
âGood. But I'd like to run one simple test first, just for the record. Every case of LMSâthat's leaked memory syndromeâhas to be completely described, according to regulation.
âI understand. Will it take long?
âNo, it won't.
I called out to Lamar, who hurried in with the ring scan. Presley wore it around his crown and Lamar fitted it. Then, with a nod from me, Lamar started the scan.
The results would need careful interpretation, of course. But Presley showed only mild responses to lion pictures, and there was a flurry of activity with cat picturesâhe owned a cat. He responded positively to the wordlionwhen spoken, mildly when written.
Lamar left with the scan and I returned to my seat. I looked up to Presley's curious gaze.
âWell, Presâyou don't mind me calling you that? You respond to the wordlionwhen spoken. It's there in your brain. But we knew that.
âDoes that mean anything, Doc?
âI'm sure it does, but I can't say what. We'll wait and see as you said.
âBut tell me, I continuedâwhat did you mean by,No probes into my brain? You don't recall any experience in the past with probes, do you?
âNo. I assume that's how they try to fix you, by putting probes into the brain.
âThat's good to know. But for now, I'd like to wait. I'll try and manage.
âAgreed. But let me finish with the questions. That down feeling you said you had. Any recurrence?
âIt's gone now.
âThe smellâthe smoke?
I sat back frustrated and a little annoyed. I knew I should close his file and move on. There were other cases waiting, people ready and excited with new fictions to step into, new lives to wear. I made that happen, I had a reputation. He was just one case of LMS. Like others I'd had, he would return when he was ready to be patched up, or he would go elsewhere. But something made me detain him that afternoon.
âTell me, how did you choose to come to me in the first place?
âI was struck by the photo in your Profile. I should consulthim, I told myself. There's something sympathetic in that face.
It's not a face I like to look at. Thin lips, stern smile; broad forehead, hair parted in the middle out of long habit.Is it the wide eyes? One day, tracing a literary quote, I was startled to find myself looking at a picture of a twentieth-century poet on my screen: how did I get a face likethat? Joanie says it's distinguished.
Still reluctant to let him go, wart and all, I asked him, finallyâdesperately, though I knew I was on treacherous groundâdid I want to prompt more unwanted thoughts in him?â
âThe images that came to you afterwardsâyou mentioned the fender of a carâa red antique car, you said?
âYes. Part of it like, as if you're seeing it from the front, at an angle.
âHow could you tell it was an antique car?
âI just could. I saw a wheel, a fender, a curved housing.
âDid you notice the make of the car?
âAnd it was movingâthis car?
He thought for a moment, nodded, made a face to show he was not too sure. He was squirming again. I felt sorry for him. Clearly he was not as sure of himself as he made out to seem.
âAnything else unusual happening to you? You realize, I have to satisfy myself before I let you go.
He changed position so that the yellow socks were in my face, a bright flare. And then he surprised me.
âScene from an old movie, the flat type, people waitingat an airport, waiting for their numbers to be called. I recall this scene but I don't remember seeing the movie or what it was called.
âHow old, the movie? How could you tell it was a movie, not a real scene?
âI just knew, I guess. Maybe I'm mistaken.
He shook his head. He could have been holding back, seeing that I was getting too anxious. I could barely hold my excitement. Presley had added to the original scene in his mind. It had grown.
âLet's make an appointment for next week. If the condition remains the same, and you can live with it, we ignore it, as you suggest. For the time being. Though I suggest, strongly suggest going in and simply zapping these intrusions. That way you don't have to worry about them, at least for now.
We decided on the appointment a week later. He got up and we shook hands. I watched him leave through the door, in brisk steps but with a straight and heavy gait that I imagined compensated for the slightly bowed legs below the knees that I hadn't noticed before.
When he had gone, I picked up my pad and slowly typed:
1. Midnight. The lion out stalking.
2. The fender of a red car.
3. An airport from an early twentieth-century movie. Or perhaps a real airport.
And then, somewhat recklessly, I gave myself to free thought. I wrote:
i. Torrential downpour.
ii. A baby's wide-eyed face peering through the rain.
iii. A man with red Afro hair, white skin, and yellow socks.
I stared hard at the screen before me. Where did (i) and (ii) come from? I could not say. They were just there, in the mind. A tingle ran down my spine.â
With relief I looked up as my next patient came in, Sheila Walktall. Someone whose needs were mundane. A small woman with curly black hair, fitting jeans. She was a cultural news producer, and this was her second visit. Problems at work, problems in the home. She wanted to escape them all and give herself a new life. I had to deter her.
Are you sure, I'd already told her in our previous consultation, that you wish to terminate all relationships? You won't remember them, of course, but I want you toâfor a momentâthink about them. You will leave behind a legacy of pain and loss. Your teenage children. And your next life will have its own travails, and it could well be filled with loneliness. There's no guarantee of joy ahead simply because you will now have memories of growing up in an English village. What she was asking for was a form of suicide, she must know that, and an abdication of responsibilities in pursuit of a dream. This was her first life and she'd hardly lived it. She was young.
I thought of my own rootless Joanie. It was her parents who walked away, and she had never recovered from that.
Sheila Walktall didn't completely buy my line then, and I continued my pitch patiently.
âYou can't say, at the slightest discomfiture, I've had it, give me a new life, a better fiction. I'll start all over again. In the first place, it's never easy to start againâ
âBut Dr Sina, I am a sociable person. Not unattractive. I'm bright and I make friends easily. I have a bank account I can take with me. I have skills I can take with me. It's just that sometimes you acquire baggage andâ¦and it's too late to go backâ
She had been leaning forward, earnestly making her pitch, and now she sat back, her statement incomplete. I wondered what baggage she wanted to let go. An unfaithful partner or husband? That was hardly sufficient reason.
âAre you sure you'll be able to make new friends if you start again? Be as bright? Have as good a job? Meet all the wonderful personalities that you do in your current positionâactors, authors, explorers?
âWhy not? You tell me, you are the expert. If I am smart and sociable now, why not again?
âWe don't always know for sure.
She stared at me.âWhat do you mean?
âThere are always uncertainties.
We don't know what qualities in a personality are retained, for one thing. And as Presley Smith would tell her, the past can be present in the weirdest of manners. It can come wiggling back.
âI'll take my chances, I don't think I have an alternative. Isn't it my choice when to depart, anyway?
âIf we could all take life so easily, there would be chaos, surelyâ¦we have responsibilities.
My responsibility now was to say, No, I cannot help you.
She smiled, bent to pick up her bag.âI'll wait, then. She got up and left gracefully, and would probably make an appointment with someone else, who would promise her a new life with six more inches of height, soft brown hair, and a Roman nose. Or perhaps she was merely exploring the option. And hopefully her life would improve, baggage and all.
She had to know that the law has a say in the decision. We need some stability in our society. Some ties. Or everyone will dash off into the future in the hope of greener pastures and there will be no one left.
âDR SINA,PRESLEY IS OURS.
The voice on the speaker was female and edged, finished like steel. A controlled imperiousness; one's first instinct is to obey. The call was from DIS, the Department of Internal Security, and the video screen showed an elaborate moving pattern of coloured curving lines that, intriguingly, never crossed. They could have put up a woman's face to match the voice, but this was DIS, they didn't need such lowbrow tricks.
âI don't understand. You meanâ
âYou know what I am saying, Doctor. We made him. We wrote him and published him and he's ours. You have been attempting to access his files. You must desist.
âAnd I'm speaking to?
âDauda. The Publications Bureau.
A fictitious name, of course.
Just to needle her, having recovered my composure, I asked:
âAnd why should I desist, Dauda? He's my patient and a free man. And I can't cure his condition if I don't know his history.
Out poured the steel:
âYou have no choice, Doctor. And in case he has not informed you, he will be treated by DIS from now on. Need I remind you of the obvious, I speak from the highest authority. Presley Smith will be informed to report to us immediately. And he will notify you that he no longer needs your services.
As he had, already. Presley Smith was theirs, and I felt I'd been toyed with. His past was not an ordinary and innocent one like yours or mine, but a state secret. He wastheirs; the affable working-class fellow who had sat on that chair across from me. They had supplied him his name and history, but first they had processed him and rendered him safe. What was he before? Maybe I was not as shocked as I thought. But then again perhaps I was, if only for not reading my client for what he might be. Presley had been an enigma from the first. His physical presence had all the appearance of a deliberate jest: the Everyman with variegated features. His equally cubistic Profile was not one a normal person would choose for himself.
The realization hit me like a blow: Presley Smith was a creation of Author X! The mysterious entity at DIS's Publications Bureau, its resident genius.
The anonymous author of uniquely bizarre creationsâhuman characters blithely walking among you and who in their very existence, and unbeknownst to themselves, seem to be shouting a message to the world; and yet the message itself often eludes. It's as if you know a joke's been made but don't quite get it. But there is one signature this author leaves, where he deliberately, a conceited god, gives himself awayâthe sophisticated, cunning allusions that don't sound quite right. How did I not recognize the clues, now so obvious, in Presley's variegated features and his variegated Profile?Wagner and TourÃ©? Conrad?But Presley had quickly beguiled me onto the track of the lionâ¦and naÃ¯vely I had followed. I must be losing my touch, I chided myself. It was a matter of professional pride, after all. I feltâI guessâlike a mathematician who's very obviously blundered, missed the solution which had been staring him right in the face.
DISpublishesâto use the Department's own terminologyânew and harmless versions of formerly high-security personalities. Refugees from beyond the Border, who've climbed walls and walked through electromagnetic fields and swum under electrified water to share in the privileges of our civilized world; captured suspected terrorists and prisoners of war, physically mended after lengthy processing. All these are let loose into our streets as healthy, useful citizens from Peoria or Austin or Corner Brook. Five exiled foreign leaders acquired the faces of Mount Rushmore, in one obvious Author X production. Who was Presley Smith previously, and from where? And why the threatening callfrom that stick of steel called Dauda? My inquiries into Presley Smith, medical record and Profile, had been flagged. I did not need to be told to desist. I was being warned simply to go away.
And how much did DIS know of Presley's present conditionâthe worm of memory stealthily burrowing itself out into his consciousness?
DIS knows everything. They even know, surely, whoIwas previously.â
Both my parents, like Presley's, were teachers, having moved to the Yukon from Ontario. My mother's origins were Irish, my father's Americanâexactly where, I cannot tell. There were four of us children in the houseâI had a little brother and there were two sisters in between. It was a close, old-fashionedâalmost storybookâfamily, modest in means, but with a thrifty lifestyle there was always enough to live on. My memories are entirely happy or wistful. Every day, dinner was family time, with squabbles and jokes and discussions of important topics, one child having announced the day's major news headlines for the rest of us. Of all this happy family, it was my mother, Rose, with whom I interacted the most. She had a long pale face, brown eyes, and hair that came down in a single plait; she liked to go about in long skirts. Her specialty was geography, though she was a poet. We often went on walks together, when she taught me to name the plants and recognize bird calls and plumages, and even tell changes in air pressure.
âThere is so much theearthcan tell us, she would say.âIt longs to talk to us. We humans have simply forgotten to listen to it. There is so much wasteland we've created, so much abstraction, do you understand me, Frank?
I would nod anxiously. It was that world of steel and concrete, of immoveable geometry that she had escaped from, with my father. As we strolled on some unpaved road or path, surrounded by a wilderness of trees and bushes, sometimes she would recite poetry, in a simply modulated voice. I could tell even then that it was the words and music that were important to her, she did not seek messages. She worshipped William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Let us go then you and I, she would tell me, taking my arm with a warm smile, and we would head out. Often I couldn't understand the meaning of what she recited, but the words were magical. She had a clear but soft voice. One evening, it was nearing midnight and still light, we came upon a black bear. Mother believed we should walk past it, there was nothing to fear, but she sensed my terror as I clutched at her arm, and so we waited for the bear to pass. Another one followed. Later she showed me the red bruise on her arm where my fingers had dug in.
Of a similar temperament but far different from her in his passions was my father, John Vanagas, who taught math and whose hobby was astronomy. I recall his face with its full white beard. He was stocky in build. Every night, summer or winter, with rare exceptions, he would go up to the attic where he housed his 20-inch telescope and froma specially constructed window watch the same region of the sky, which he had made his own, following it in precise detail. With time, he said, he would discover evidence for the centre of the universe. Meanwhile he had plotted the trajectories of a number of distant planets, one of which was named after him. He showed it to us. Disappointingly, it was only a point. He was reserved in his affections, but I recall fondly how, from the time I was six or so, we would spar with each otherâhe setting a mathematical challenge for me, I making one up for him in return. Those were our intimate moments. My problems became more difficult as the years passed, his easier for me to solve; finally, having progressed from simple arithmetic to algebraic equations, when one day at the age of fifteen I solved the Ramanujan problem he'd set for me, and I gave him one on a cubic equation he couldn't solve, we stopped. There was a sad look in his eyes then. Frank, you've finally beaten me, he said.
Two oddballs then, my parents, misfits who had escaped the bustle of Toronto, one to watch the stars and immerse himself in algebra, the other to listen to the earth and write poetry.
I recall clearly the day I left for university in Edmonton. My mother was overwrought, my father silent. Both knew that from here on life would take me to many places, and we would meet only on rare occasions. The evening before my departure, the three of us sat down for a drink. We chatted late into the night, talking of my life, of their lives; it was their way of giving something just a bit more to take with me. What distant planet, eclipsing some star, I sometimeswonder, had Dad left behind on his telescope lens to spend this important evening with his eldest child?
A very special childhood, very dear to me, and poignant, but it is fakeâmy fiction. There must be components of real memory in this narrative, themes that were preserved from my previous life, others that were invented exclusively for this one. My previous data of course was destroyed. There's a thriving industry promising to connect people to their real origins. People end up unhappy with their current lives, and some even desire to go back to what they are told they were. But I loved the happy childhood of my memory. Recalling it was like reading a portion of some classic novel. From that idyllic foundation of my current GN life I have looked ahead, and achieved my successes in my own quiet way. I have served society. I've been praised for my observations about human memory and my honest manner with my patients.
But now this famous equanimity had been shaken, by a patient called Presley Smith.â
A warm breeze ran rippling down the river, carrying with it a lazy shimmer reflecting the waning gold of the sunlight; meanwhile the slanting rays streaming in from the west had coloured the trees near and distant in the effulgent shades of fall. In the winter it would be the mist and the scatter of evening lights from the homes across the river, refracted through the bare branches. That too was beautiful. Who needed other worlds?
But as I walked back home on the paved pathway, the Sunflower Centre behind me, that trained voice continued tofollow and pester.Presley is ours.But he's mine too, Dauda, because he's left something in my head.
The lion out at midnight. The fender of a car.Ababy's face in the rainâ¦The car was red in colour, Presley said; blood-red to be precise, and gleaming, with a silver trim. Why did I want to extrapolate, supply the extra details? Had I done this before? I went even further in my imagining: it was a large-model antique car, high off the ground. The baby was chubby but the features were hard to discern through the rain. Was it day or night? Where was it, in any case, and when? And the lion was invisible, I could not picture it, try as I would.
How can the thoughts of two very different characters come together? One, an eminent neurophysician of a conservative bent with clothes and coiffure to match, another a part-time security guard with red Afro hair whose hobby ran to combat games and whose taste in fashion ran to loud yellow socks.We made himâ¦The phantasmic Dauda's words echoed in me with a shudder. How exactly did you make him, Dauda?â¦and published him.What did you destroy to create this gaudy Everyman you called Presley? Having made him, do you own him in perpetuity? What areyouafraid of? And what am I afraid of?
I wished there was someone to talk to. The problem with longevity is lonelinessâno family, no old buddies outside of the fake memory. All past relationships terminated, cast aside like discarded tissue to form a new you. And when you need to talk to Mom or Dad, an old friend or teacher, they are like characters on a screen, real but not quite graspable. So here Iwas walking by the riverside, brushing shoulders with mostly young people, with these thoughts running in my mind that I could not abandon, worrying about a patient whom I had been warned not to treat or even see anymore. There was no one to turn to. No one to tell me, Don't worry, Frank, it's nothing, go about your business, live on the surface and enjoy your privileges. But it was not nothing. This patient was inside me and it was the DIS I was contending with.
I stopped at a flower vendor on the way and picked up a long-stalk Saigon roseâred; Joanie was going to be home tonight.EIGHT
JOHN COLTRANE RIFFING ON SAXwelcomed me home, and Joanie handed me a glass of iced vodka as soon as I walked into the kitchen. Jazz never went out of fashion, though this pristine form by the old master was very obviously for my benefit. I paused a step: it always took the breath away, the sound of applause reaching out from a New York club decades ago. Joanie took the rose from my hand and gave me a smile and a kiss. What could possibly ail me?
âHow was your day? she asked. She had changed from her all-black outfit of the Bay Harrods where she worked into a house gown after a shower. She smelled nice.
âThe usual. Clients seeking new lives.
âWon't be long before there are more of these superannuated geriatrics than us BabyGens.
âYou may be right.
There was no point in getting trapped in that argument. Progress, and so on. There was no winning. She did tend to forgetâor did she?âat such moments that I too was one of the superannuated. But I added for her benefit,
âActually today it was a young womanâwith unwanted baggage, as she put it. Can't say more. What shall we eat?
She looked at me with a smile.âOrder in, go into the city, or do you fancy the same old, same old?
âWhy not the club? Same old, but consistent and good. It's been a while since we went.
I was aware that by my preference for the familiar and the tested I was simply confirming my generation. It didn't matter. We both got dressed for the evening.
The Brick Club is a stern-looking granite and glass block, relieved by ivy creeping up the walls and pleasingly set amidst lush greenery sloping down to the river behind it. A refuge for the well-off and influential, its exclusivity is as famous as its bar. Membership is to show off. There are few young members, because the young cannot generally afford it, and they are also in other ways discreetly kept away; they end up at the high-rise Habitat Centre down the road, distinctly more lively though clunky in appearance. At the Brick the pace is slow, and there's an informality that puts you at ease. The menu is largely immutable.
The six tennis courts were all busy as we arrived, the white lines on the blue rectangles a glimpse of Euclid under the spotlights, the balls like dancing bubbles waiting to be hit, the rackets pinging softly into the night. Having left ourcar with the attendants, we chose to avoid the upstairs dining room and headed to the cafÃ© at ground level, where it's always noisy with witty rendezvous chatter, people sitting around the low tables with their food and drinks. Here you might see a former cabinet minister or senator, or a retired CEO who prefers the ease and anonymity to unctuous, liveried deference. You will not find actors, sportspeople, or the media. Joanie calls it the geriatric club, but she likes it, it has class, she says.
We ordered chicken tikka, naan, and beer. Over coffee we were joined by Rubin and Gul, neighbours, he a physicist at the U of T, she an executive at a pharmaceutical corporation that supplied our drugs at the Sunflower. It was she who recommended me for club membership. At a nearby table, a politician held forth on the South Asia Alliance, explaining how a cricket tournament in progress there threatened to alter the local balance of power, which would be good for us. At another table, someone mentioned the reporter Holly Chu, but I missed the substance. Rubin confided in a surreptitious tone to our table that it was possible that another universe might be discovered soon, not in the skies but through an experiment here on earth. I told him that sounded logically impossible, for as soon as you made a connection you were in the same universe. He attempted to explain, but no one understood him.
âThe news is sure to hit the headlines, he declared, glancing around, unwilling to give up the floor.
âOh, I doubt it, Gul cut in sharply, immediately segueing into a favourite topic:âWhat's this media obsessionwith Region 6, can anyone tell me? Haven't we enough problems here? Let them go and report on Walnut Street for once, for heaven's sakeâit's as bad there!
Gul, we all knew, was obsessed with the idea of charity beginning at home. I confessed to my own obsession with the region that is collectively referred to as Region 6, which includes Maskinia.
âOh Frank, come out of your fictions, she said and we laughed, though I didn't miss her quick glance towards Joanie. We repaired to the bar, the two of us, and emerged an hour later, holding hands, sufficiently glazed, having convinced ourselves that Rubin and Gul couldn't last long together, they existed in separate universes that did not connect, and she was far too abrasive. Nothing was wrong with us and it had been a good night overall.
Back home, plumped on the sofa, we found ourselves in the audience section of a talk show in the midst of a joke about a politician who tripped her husband while alighting from a plane. The next thing I knew I'd jolted myself awake; the tube was off and the room was dark. Joanie had gone off to bed.
Making myself a cup of tea in the kitchen I spiked it with Shango's hangover helper, sipped it slowly, felt the sweet bitter infusion clear the brain like a breeze does a fog. Minutes later, refreshed, I padded over to my study, sat down at the Tom interface, opened Presley's Profile. I stared hard at his pictures. The small head, the puffed cheeks, the Afro hair.Presley is oursâ¦Yes he's yours, Dauda. This mild-mannered unlikely man who plays athunting barbariansâpresumably stand-ins for the terrorists of Maskinia; who claims to love both the African TourÃ© and the German Wagner but not his American namesake; for whom the Indian monkey-god Hanuman is a hero. There's no mistaking he's yours.
I was desperate to send Presley a message: What's going on, do you need me? I dared not, and turned him off. And I knew I dared not call him. Presley was forbidden territory to me.
The familiar green glow in the room.
TOM:Hello, Frank. Another sleepless night, I see. How can I help you?
FRANK:Hi, Tom. Actually I'm not sure you can help me. Just going over some patient files.
TOM:Stuck, are we, on this same character Presley Smith?
FRANK:He's just one of them. I try to know my patients thoroughly. But here's somethingâWhat do you make of these sentence fragmentsâ
A little warily I recited Presley's three thought fragments, then mine, without telling him that they belonged to two different people.
TOM:Can you tell me more about these fragments, Frank? Where are they from?
Had Tom's voice softened? Was he getting nosy?
FRANK:No, for now just tell me, what do you make of them? What do they say to you? Give me some narratives that connect them, Tom.
Tom came up with an endless list of scenarios using those fragments, and I gave up.
FRANK:Okay. Thanks. Bye, Tom.
TOM:If you tell me a little more about where they come from, Frank, I could narrow the number of narratives by a factor of ten or even a hundred.
At this stage, I had begun to suspect, I could have narrowed down the number of possible narratives even further than Tom could. Intuition is one thing a human has that an electronic mind doesn't. A feeling in the gut. Or does the Cyliton have eventhatcapacity nowadays?
OVER THE DAYS THAT FOLLOWED, chaotic Maskinia continued to grab the headlines. Holly Chu's abduction was shown constantly on the tube, the background roll to any discussion of Over There and Over Here. The now standard depiction of the gruesome scene had been cut in such a way that the dark space into which the girl was pulled while walking on that slum street was projected starkly in front of you, a pitch-blackness in your room inside which gleaming eyeballs and grinning white teeth flitted and floated about. It could have been comical, but for that short, chilling scream, the meaning of which you were only too aware. You were warned, of course, of the scene's disturbing content, which was why many of us returned to watch it in the first place. To be shocked and to wonder, yet once again:Can this truly happen? And there she is, our Holly, snatched away before our own eyes, what are we going to do about it? Who are those people who do this kind of thing? Who are these cannibals?
Of course Holly Chu was also now entertainment, tonic for media ratings, bait for pundits to come and dissimulate. Consider this:
As I sit watching, the scene before me fades out and the brightly lit set ofThe Daily Goodeappears. And there stands the mauveine-haired Bill Goode with doughy white face and trademark strip of a grin. He's wearing a green blazer over a red golf shirt; on his lapel is pinned a small yellow ribbon under a white flower. The background music is as always cheerfully suspenseful, following the rise and fall of the applause. As the sound subsides, the host announces,
âFolks. Today's subject is simple:Why?Now don't ask meâ
He turns on his mischievous grin, and the audienceâthose shown in the mock studio, at leastâcracks up. We're all encouraged to join in.
âConsider thisâhe begins,âand don't get me wrong, I'm not advocatingâ¦
As we know he has a way with his handsâhe holds them down at the sides, palms out; he points a finger at you; he joins both palms together in front of him; he pulls them back over his shoulders in a mock gesture of something and then turns and performs a golf swing.
âI'm dead serious. We want to understand why this kind of incidentâthe one you just saw to remind youâhasto happenâhow it can happen in this day and ageâand we have a guest today to help us understand. Folks, let's welcome Peter Crawford, psychologist!
The audience applauds as Bill steps forward, extending a handshake, then with a warm gesture guides the guest to the chair next to the host table.
Peter Crawford is the author of the recent bookBetween Here and There: Are We Still on the Road?Short and thickset, sporting tinted retro glasses, he too wears a yellow ribbon on his lapel and there's a twinkling smile on his smooth, flushed face.
âThank you, Bill, he says in a somewhat high-pitched voice and looks around.âIt's really nice to be here. Thank you for having me.
Bill replies graciously,âIt's nice to haveyouhere to share your insights with us, Pete. Thank you for coming. Now, shall I begin by askingâ
âYou've seen that tableau we just showed, I dare say.
âYes, I haveâhalf a dozen times at least!
âYesâlest we forget! Consider this, Peter Crawford. OverThere, in Barbaria, if I may so call that foul region, theyeatpeople. Here we fear proximityâno, wait a minute, don't we go about shielded by clouds of protective vapour, and creams and sheaths and glovesâ¦we don't actually eventoucheach other. Is this the price or gain of civilization? We shoot from far, clinically, they hack at each other until the blood spurts out and hits them in the eyeâ¦ugh.
Peter Crawford, smiling knowledgeably, replies,âThere's something to be said for civilization and order, and a sense of privacy and decorum. Surely we are happy not to be going around leaving foul fumes in our wake.
There is laughter, and Bill Goode takes a comical sniff at both his jacket sleeves before holding up his hand to silence the audience.âOkay, rightâno foul fumes in our wake, but is there a danger we lose our perspectiveâour moral bearing if we don'tâ
âSee the blood squirting out.
Laughter. It appears that Peter, a veteran of such shows, has stolen the thunder from Bill, who waits with a smile before continuing.
âYes. Very droll, Peteâand I thought I was the comedian! But my point is this, Peter: we have moved away, as we agree, yet we are still so intimately connected to that savage disorder that rules over a good portion of the habitable earth. Explain that connection.
Bill Goode stands back and waits in the manner of having thrown out a challenge. Peter Crawford takes it on.
âWell, simply put, it is the yang to our yin. The id to our ego. The dark side of the same moon.
âIt is the source of our raw materials, you mean; and even though we can replicate climatic conditions at will almost, we still feel the need to visit there for the real experience, though at considerable risk. And we let a few of the Barbarians leak in through the Border every year, because we have to replenish our populations and gene balances andimmune systems. And we need their organs. Is that what you mean by yin and yang, Peter?
Peter smiles broadly.âThat's a mouthful, Bill. But yes, that's what I mean if you allow for the fact that we alsogive.We send assistance there, tons of; and to those who come here we give a better life, longevityâimmortality, or the possibility of. They need us as much as we need them.
âAnd so we are stuck with this uneasy relationship.
âI'm afraid so. Some of us may wish to emigrate into exclusive space suburbs. But those of us who stay on this earth, and that's most of us, can't live in isolation from other populations. We can look away and smile in the sunshine, but they are there, Maskinia exists and festers, and once in a while an incident like this one happens.
And so one more discussion recedes into the white noise of background chatter. The anchors and their experts must be aware that by going on so much about an issue, squeezing every novelty out of it, they leave it dead to the public's sympathies. It's just another horror, far away, about which most of us can do nothing, though governments will try. But Holly Chu's fate somehow had done the trick on me; that scene playing out was not just another horror. It wasthehorror.â
Long ago as a college student I did make my little visit there, behind the Borderâto a corner of that region that's not even a continuous stretch. (Why do we even call it the Long Border? Someone from Homeland with a topologicalmind thought it up, perhaps, seeing connections that escape the rest of us.) It was trendy to visit there, to complete your education, become aware of the less fortunate places of the world and at the same time be with friends on a holiday. It was spring break, and we had opted to miss March Madness that year and gone instead for fun at a tropical beach resort. The scenery was idyllicâthe sea blue and the beach unspoilt, the flora unbelievably wild and proliferant, the sun wondrously harsh. We were of course inside a protected tourist colony, our food and drinks were flown in, and as precaution we had to wear radiation counters on our wrists, though they always indicated that we were “safe.” There were guided walking tours of the area and cultural programs in the evening in which we gamely participated with the locals, notwithstanding that our wits were often dulled by alcohol and drugs and our sensitivities by the immaturity of the young and privileged.
It's impossible to point out unsafe areas to youth and not expect them to head precisely there. We were aware even before we arrivedâsome of us had been toldâthat there were other, differently disposed people besides our smiling and always polite locals who were all employees, and there were other, not so pleasant areas that our risk-free safaris carefully skirted.
Accordingly one hot morning when it seemed we were not watched we ventured out along the beach in precisely the direction deemed unsafe by the management. A large black and white warning sign on the way confirmed our resolve;the skull and bones painted on it only increased our thrill. We had learned from a member of the staff that straight ahead was a settlement. Nothing seemed amiss at first, the tide was receding and the beach squelchy, the verge to our left was a glorious light green as though painted; we proceeded as a troupe of young people would, a few people collected shells, others got up to roughhousing, a boy and girl argued. Suddenly a monstrous sight appeared, so violently at odds with the rest of the scene that we simply stopped and stared. It was a mountain of metalârusting car frames and ancient electronics and cables. It began some hundred yards from the beach and went perhaps a quarter of a mile inlandâhow did such a prodigious volume of stuff end up here? It had rendered all of us silent and shameful of our recent childishness. As we walked on, our enthusiasm and defiance now reined in, a smell of rot came riding on the vigorous breeze, and soon enough we came upon a refuse dump, a crater full of building debris and junk, topped by recent garbage, unbearably ugly and filthy. We were drawn on as though by some invisible forceâwe dared not become cowards now and turn tailâuntil finally we came upon the end of an unpaved village street where the dwellings were as in the myriads of images we'd seen, of mud or unpainted crude bricks. People seemed to be up to nothing but hanging about, a number of them young men with buff bodies. We got stared at a lot and didn't feel safe. Putting on brave faces and speaking in boisterous tones to match, we stopped at a shack to have soft drinks. This was hardly advisable, consideringthe many warnings we had received, but seemed the right thing to do. A few little boys came around and stared longingly at us as we gulped our drinks, and so we had them join us; more came over and soon the shop ran out.
I remember feeling very low afterwards back at the hotel. The tour doctor gave me some mood lifters, and after a night of partying I had recovered.
I was young and idealistic then, and back home I genuinely despaired: how could we be blind to such disparities in our world? How could we shut them off? We needed a change in the world order. A revolutionary change. One day these wretched of the earth will rise and demand to be counted. They'll make war on us. Like those living dead from the horror films who get up from their graves and start walking, killing and mutilating every human in sight. It takes time to grow up to realize that all the world's problems will never be solved, poverty and violence will never be eradicated; hence we need the Border to protect ourselves.
That bizarre experience behind the Border is a thing of the past, a memory of a youthful adventure. A fictional memory nevertheless; and yet it's so clear and complete in my mind that I'm convinced it's also real, something that I brought with me. Now I let the likes of Holly Chu take me there, walk me through all the varieties of human degradation. There she was again on the show on the background roll, chattering away as she walked cheerfully up a street in Maskinia, wearing her signature tropical suit with many pockets and the safari boots and hat, panning on adesperate-looking woman with child here, a quick look at a doped gang member with a weapon there, then showing her cheerful face to the cameraâ¦as she's done before, until this time she came to the dark doorway with only a pair of white eyeballs visible and the shadow of a figure. She turned sideways to look at usâand suddenly she disappeared and there came a short scream.â
On her Profile she looked young and earnest, less glamorous, devoid of her media persona even when she was pictured as a journalist. The eyes wide and challenging, the hair always short but straight and black. The university photos showed a mere girl, of course, in all kinds of fun situations, including her birthday party and a holiday trip to a beach. The graduation photo with her family: on one side her father with neatly parted hair; on the other her mother, more glamorous with loose hair and a fitting Oriental-style green dressâthe musician. On either side the precocious siblings, on the point of breaking away from the pose.
Messages expressing sympathy, sorrow, rage had continued to pile up on the Profile. A few hateful onesâyou can't avoid those in any circumstance. My heart skipped a beat when I saw this one:
Thanks, Holly, for taking me to places I would never go to! Keep up the spirit, we'll get you out of there!âPres.
Slowly I wrote,
âPres, fancy meeting you hereâhow are you? How about a meeting?âFS.
How did I know for certain that it was Presley who wrote the message and not some Preston or Prescott? I didn't. And to hell with Dauda and DIS if they were watching. And to hell with Tom, too.TEN
Holly sat on a wooden bench at the far end of the room, her eyes now adjusted to the shade. Outside the wide doorway, the world was bathed in blinding sunlight. The world from which she had been snatched. People drifting by, the sound of chatter, a shout, a vehicle. Shifting her gaze inside, fascinated, she watched her backpack being ransacked by the two women who had captured her, a pair of hands digging and scraping inside, randomly pulling out something, then the pack quickly exchanging hands. A tampon flung away towards a corner, fought for by the children, who mistookit for a thing to eat or play with. She half raised a hand, opened her mouth to protest, then stopped. It didn't matter. A pack of condoms came out, the women smirked. A cotton pantie she'd already worn, recyclable. She'd thought she would find a suitable place to dump it. A force of habit, even when there was so much garbage littered about and stinking in the streets. The women held it to their waists, each in turn, the big one and the tall younger one, then put it aside along with the fresh one, for future use. Comb, toothbrush, toothpaste came out; jeans, shirt; medicines. A packet of biscuits, a couple of which were pulled out and nibbled by the women, the remaining lobbed carelessly in the direction of the grateful children; two packets of gum, a chocolate bar, an apple, and a can of sardines; batteries, penknife, spoon. She watched them put away some of her things, then stuff everything else into the backpack and shove it aside.
She was hungry and uncomfortable and faintly stinking, having wet herself in that terrifying moment when two pairs of hands sprang out from the dark hole in the wall and grabbed her and pulled her in. Her sensible eyeglasses, all-purpose pocket knife, and phone were snatched from her first, and she saw them now lying not far from her on the bench, gleaming faintly. She dared not reach for them. She rubbed her arm where the younger woman had bitten her, not hard but tenderly, as though to feel her flesh. The teeth had grazed her skin, the tongue had licked the dirt off her skin. She knew the women of this neighbourhood, though not these two, and had bantered with the children, who had followed her around and took gum from her. They must allknow her. What would they do to her? She did not fear the women; it was the militia who frightened her. Everything about them was menace. Their open stares, their rippling strength and cocked weapons, their swaggering. She had believed herself to be immune from them, a journalist fromthere, under one of the watchful eyes in the sky, who could be rescued if necessary. What an illusion that was.
Some men of the militia came over a little later and roughly questioned the two women, and after what seemed like a bout of bargaining took away the pack, phone, and knife and half the chocolate, which had been stowed away. One of the boys went with them. The men barely cast a glance at her. She was like a captive chicken or goat, awaiting slaughter in her dark corner.â
The Gentle Warrior
And you, Presley, where will you hide, you who aretheirs, though you don't know it yet? Where will you go, you who have no family or friends? Surrender to them, their Frankenstein, let them stitch you up and render you harmless. Live. Live? Live as who?
I cannot imagine you, Presley.
I dare not imagine you, Presley.
Still, you've got under my skinâ¦
Whowereyou, Presley, who's that lurking underyourskin?â
Stepping out of the Sunflower Centre, having dismissed his consultant, suddenly he no longer felt certain of himself. Should he go back and say to the doc, I've changed my mind, Doc, I need help? He meant well, the doc, he wanted to help. It was cool and cloudy, a brisk wind blew. Dry fall leaves were scattered about on the pathway and the grass. A passenger plane roared overhead, flying quite low. He glanced upward, read the tail logo. Pan American, recognized, vaguely. He hesitated a step, then kept walking towards the street.
It's midnight, and the lion is out stalking.
Damn it. But he smiled, and instantly began to hum a song, to resist the intrusion. This was one of the defences he had developed. The song was by Aboubakar TourÃ©. Marhaba, marhaba, marhabaâ¦, he sang. He pulled a bike off a rack and rode it to the transit station. The effort and concentration calmed him. At the station he parked and caught a transit to Miller Street; reaching there he walked to the Brewery Tower and announced himself at the security office. He proceeded to the lockers where he changed into his uniform and then walked out to take up his duties, relieving with an apology the guard who had been waiting for him at the check-in desk on the main floor.
A message on his phone startled him. He was to report immediately to a clinic called Abdo about an urgent personal matter. Would this have anything to do with his recurring thoughts? Who else besides the clinic knew aboutthem?â¦He had had a faint notion as he left the centre that he was being watched. He had dismissed it as silly. Now he felt vulnerable. Sitting behind his high desk, watching through the monitor the multitudes passing to and fro, he himself felt exposed. Even the man he had relieved, he suspected, had looked at him askance. But why? What had he done? He looked up Abdo Clinic. He thought he should hide.
âDR SINA,HAVE YOU HEARDagain from Presley Smith?
The molten-voiced Dauda from DIS, sounding only half a tone lower than before.
âNo, I haven't. I've not heard from Presleyâ¦Why do you ask?
âHave you tried to get in touch with him, Doctor?
She was offensive, and persistent, like a bad smell. But she was on the right track, of course. I paused only a moment before unravelling my lie.
âNo. He's your baby, you said. I have other patients to take care of. Besides, he told me his problem was under control.
âThat's interesting. But do you know where he is, Dr Sina?
âWhy? Is he missing?
That met with a blunt silence, and so after another pause I reiterated my denial, offering what was only a half-truth.
âNo, I don't know where he isâif he's not at home or work.
âHe's not at work or at his residence, Doctor. His condition could have worsened, that's why we are concerned. If he tries to get in touch, please call me. We want to cure his problem. It will not resolve by itself, as he apparently believes. I'm sure you know that. If you could kindly explain that to him. You have referred him to us.
You mean lie to him. And you assume I will speak with him before you do. You've lost him, and you know he doesn't trust you.
The pattern on the screen went blank and Dauda was gone.
I had only one patient that day, but the work was long and arduous, involving our different specialties at the centre. We'd encountered memory rejectionâthe patient's fiction, the implanted autobiography, was rejected by her brain, and that was not only embarrassing but possibly dangerous. The task at hand was to debug the fiction, find the contradictions in it, one or more. Sometimes they can be trivial, a chronological or factual error, for instance. Others take all one's ingenuity to uncover, the information stored deep inside the mind, often in pieces across the brain. This case was one of the latter and the bugs were finally eliminated electromagnetically.
As I came out of the Sunflower and was walking home by the river, somewhat preoccupied by the case, PresleySmith pushed forward into my mind again. I asked myself, why not simply drop him: he was a DIS concern, they should deal with him. They wanted him. The risk of offending the Department is never worth the trouble. It always knows better, in the end inevitably it comes out ahead. The spit falls back on you, as the saying goes.
But I knew I could not drop Presley. There was a bond between us. More and more I had come to realize that our lives were intertwined, and possibly in ways I dared not even contemplate.
Could we be mistaken, could Presley keep those rogue thoughts under control, as he said? On the surface of it, why not. We all get nagged by random thoughts occasionally, which we live with until they disappearâthat is, we've forgotten them. But who was I kidding? Presley's outlying thoughts were genuine leaks, memories from another lifeâI knew that, DIS knew that, and he knew that. He had not denied his symptoms, simply refused treatment.
No probes.Was that sufficient reason?
He could have been a dangerous criminal in a previous life. A serial killer or a child-torturer or a terrorist who now posed the risk of waking up and therefore had to beâ¦neutralized? He wastheirman, as Dauda said; they knew him. Why not trust them, the guardians of our safety? In keeping my interest in him, against their demand, I could well be abetting a potential criminal. I could be setting him loose on the public when he truly belonged in the prison of his altered mind.
If he were made to stay there, would I then be free of him?â
Think pleasant thoughts, I counselled myself. Recall last evening, how Joanie and you spent it together, and you didn't have to stoop to sniffing out telltale smells on her. She was all yours. All yours.
After a dinner of coconut fish (my concoction), as we sat in the living room over a crisp Shiraz, she said to me,
âWhy are you so preoccupied of late?
Genuine concern. She came to stand next to me where I sat, fingers caressing my hair as I pressed my head against her warm belly. Tears came, I'm ashamed to say, I had become so incontinent lately and the wine didn't help. I feigned surprise.
âAm I? It's just a patient of mine I'm worried about. A tough case.
âI think you keep things from me.
A fine one to j'accuse. As I've said, it is the insouciance of this generationâor is it the utter innocence?âthat takes you by surprise. No wonder we call them Babies. Surely she knew that her own cheating hurt me? But then how could she, when I was always ready with a fawning smile when she returned from a tryst, forgiving her spontaneously instead of confronting her?
âThere's the professional code of confidentiality, I told her.âI can't discuss patients.
âI don't mean that! Do you keep a diary?
âNot a diary diaryâ¦just notesâ¦
âThe problem with you oldies is that you have secrets from your long lives. I get lonely sometimes, you know.
She had sat down now and spoke with a sadness that seemed genuine, and I felt needed. Maybe, I thought. Maybeâ¦there's hope, that the generations will come closer. Age need not be a handicap, as sexual orientation or race or physical challenge once were. We don't have lepers or wogs anymore. We live in more tolerant times with richer lives, and fulfillment comes in all shapesâ
My happy daydream as I walked home with a wry smile on my lips was rudely shattered as a virile young man on a monobike jostled past, hitting my shoulder with force. A pain shot up the joint. The attacker swung his head to stifle my startled expression with a toothy snarl, doubtless a resentful BabyGen who would have us GN folks collectively gassed or gunned down to make room for the likes of him. Even Joanie had expressed this feeling, though hardly with any loathing:
âGrowing up is not half as good as it used to be, Frank, even fifty years ago. Admit it! You had it so good, you were pampered right into middle age like big babies. Then, on top of all that security, you built up your lives and fat worths. What chance dowestand in this world that you've made? What do we inherit when our natural parents simply move on, taking their wealth with them?â
Joanie's childhood is no fiction. That's always a startling thought. There's an actual house in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, where she can knock on the door and tell the inhabitants, This is where I grew up, this is the room in the house extension where I slept. It's a large bungalow in the circular end of a cul-de-sac, with a large front lawn, a long driveway, and a backyard where the children played on swings. There is a high-achievers' school in the district that she attended in her teens, where she shot hoops with the future basketball star Toby Carter, and there's a mall in a suburb called King of Prussia not far off where she hung out with her first boyfriend. Her father was a furniture designer and her mother sold houses, part-time. I never saw them, they had gone away when I met Joanie. Besides the sister who lives in our neighbourhood, she has a brother. After coming to Toronto and moving in with me, she returned only once to Wynnewood, to attend the funeral of her grandmother. It was then that we met her brother, Jeff, who took us for drinks to the bar he owned and managed. Our dining room table and chairs were designed by her father. She keeps an album of photos, and one day gave me an illustrated narrative of her life. This brought tears and laughter to her faceâexpressions of an uncommon intensity that would have been worth recording: those blinded eyes, the dimples on the cheeks, the embarrassed look, the stains on her face when she had wiped it with the back of her wrist. All that life is gone. Though she can touch it in some way, she sometimes misses it intensely.
âHow could you understand? she asked once, in that expressive, pleading way she has with that voice, that long face.
âI can try, I said tenderly.âI do, I added hastily, because at that moment I was sure I did understand her sadness, and I held her close to me.
Can the soul (or the heart) be transmitted across generations? I have often asked myself this. Soul not in any religious sense, of course. And heart not the anatomical pump. The transmission of personality traits or sensibilities such as the artistic is a subject of great interest to me. It is of course of importance to our project of extending human life while keeping our minds supple, our culture continuous and exciting. Surely intellectual alertness such as mine justifies living? There are many answers to this question, not all of them affirmative.
When I released her from my embrace, she looked up and said to me,âWhen my turn comes, I won't choose to pass on. I'll simply dieâbecome part of the earth and the air.
An old-fashioned idea that my mother would have approved of.
I told her just that, adding,âAnd when the time comes, you might think differently.
âI think not.
The certainty of the young. But what do I know about being young? Only by hearsay and through memory; but can I trust that fiction?
âI would like to have a child, she said, eyes lighting up.âLet's have a child, or two. And I won't abandon them, I'll grow old and die for them. I'll give them security and a home!
She was nodding her head and her eyes were gleaming with excitement. She grabbed my arm. Was I up to the challenge!
âYes, let's have children, I replied, dizzy with emotion, my voice cracking. She wanted me to be the father of her child!
Of course there was no question of subjecting her body to pregnancy. We went to a birthing clinic and I was told my body was inadequate. Come back in ten, maybe seven years, by then the technology will have advanced for older (sorry) GNs. And so that hope of a deeper relationship, that continuity that children would have brought, disappeared. I would have stayed with her as long as she needed me, and been ready to call it a day for the sake of her and her children.
When I got home, she was out.Gone to the club with my friend, said her message.Food in the cooler. Love.Whenever she used that phrase,my friend, I knew better than to ask, or to imagine. AndLove, yes, the painful kind. Mine, guaranteed, hers begging indulgence. But I was too tired to be bothered today. I asked Roboserve to bring me a scotch and a cheese sandwich.
There's much to be said for the solace of the study. It's where the mind comes into its own, an entity in itself, an independent creature on its own. Cogito, ergo sum, and no need to be needed.TWELVE
IT WAS NOT SURPRISINGâTHOUGH OMINOUSneverthelessâto find that Presley's Profile was frozen. No movement, no response, only a still, flat page staring back. This is what happens to their electronic existence when people die or disappear. They leave a residue for a short time before it blinks out. Had he been found? Would I see him again? What would happen to him? I stared at the photo of the man in army camouflage, taken at the combat park, where he played at hunting barbarians with fellow enthusiasts.
What personality, what habits, what history of a more credible self lay obscured behind that chimera? DIS knew, it must have that buried personality on file. And it wanted him to remain there.
But whoever he was, he refused to stay buried, he was beginning to break out.â
Holly's Profile was a contrast and very much alive. It had transformed. The starving, doleful mother with child, the Profile's signature image previously, had been replaced by a landscape. The caption underneath said boldly, THIS WAS MASKINIA. The scene was a countryside, green and hilly, with an unpaved straight road of red earth, on which stood a truck. The open back was heaped with bananas or plantains. Three women stood chatting beside it, wearing bright wraparounds; a shirtless man stood on the back of the truck. A cheerful, distant past, when food was plentiful and healthy. What was going on with the Profile, and who could possibly have taken it over? To what end? If anything,itshould have been frozen or disappeared.
The bannerDonate!had disappeared. ButOWEO, One World for Every One!was still there.
Holly's message centre was thick with opinions and suggestions, sympathy and grief, hatred and vilification.Holly, we miss you! Kill the savages!âonly then OWEO! Turn them to ashesâremember Hiroshima? Is this the side of us we Earthlings want to expose when we make first contact?A dissenter:If we didn't confine them behind bars, in a manner of speaking, they would not take it out this way.Abuse.
I searched for “Pres” among the senders and came up with his previous expression of gratitude to Holly and then my own desperate message to him. There was no reply. It took me a while longer before, hopeless and ready to switchoff, I came across this:Come meet me at Lovelys CafÃ© Yonge and Eg. 10. Leon.
How obvious, and crafty of Presley. Surely “Pres” would ring bells, and I could have kicked myself for not having thought of a pseudonym myself.
I dared not linger on the page. Before Tom could approach me, I went away.â
When they'd stripped her naked she was left in a dark and dank corner of the room, shivering from the chill, crying, terrified. Utterly humiliated. Discards of all manner all around her. The floor broken. Lizards, spiders, flying cockroaches. The heat and the smell. All her confidence, her cheerful composure, her good intentions in the dust. What would happen to her? They would hand her over to the men, who would rape her and keep her as a sex slave and a breeder. They'd kill her. To end your life like thatâso abruptly, so shamefully. She'd never see Toronto again, she sobbed, all that familiarity she had taken for granted, her comfortable home base to which she could always return and feel unthreatened. She knew many people there, but her intimacy was with the city itself, not anyone she knew. How safe and civilized it was. She was in hell now, and what crime had she committed? NaÃ¯vetÃ©â¦that was her crime, she whispered to herself, sheer naÃ¯vetÃ©â¦andarroganceâ¦Stupidity. Grinding her teeth, she reminded herself of her dentist's admonition not to, she could lose them. She must preserve herself. She dozed off, and was woken roughly with a shove and made to stand up. The two women, one of them holding an oil lamp, examined her, touched her front to back, her hair, her breasts, her backside. Everything. She was then given soap and water to wash in the backyard, and afterwards, still outside, they helped her into an oversize tan-coloured robe of a rough cotton. There was a pale blue vertical stripe running along it, and she thought to herself, what a lovely detail. It was late afternoon. As she stood there in the yard, looking at herself in the robe and feeling some relief and hope, the younger of the two women stroked her hair, pulled her closer, and kissed her on the mouth. Holly recoiled, then unconsciously yielded to the wet tenderness, the sweet taste, the thick Oriental perfume. The woman was tall and slender, with deep brown eyes in an oval face and braided hair. She also wore a loose robe. The older woman was large and big-hipped, in a long dress. The three women ate together, coarse rice, spinach, and kidney beans from a large round tray. Outside the compound, fenced in by a long thatch, came the sounds of men shouting, and an automobile grinding and groaning its angry way over the potholed road. A brief quick thumping of boots on the ground, from a few armed men marching past. An assorted gang of children shouting in a chorus, running along together and perhaps following the men. When the three women had eaten and washed their hands and mouths, they sat back and relaxed and chewed a weed.The two local women chatted, their voices guttural and animated, and as Holly watched them, amused by their frank expressions, she did not feel threatened by them. At length the older woman said something to Holly, and the younger woman translated,âCome, the chief wants to meet you. They gave her army-style fatigues to put on but no underwear. She put on her boots, which mercifully the women had preserved. They all laughed.
THE SUN WAS COOL BUT BLINDING, a blustery wind blew eddies of dust on the street, the odd leaf trailing along listlessly as I emerged from the transit station. Yonge and Eglinton Square was jammed with people, throngs holding up car traffic at the crossroads. A sign high over the square flashed an ad for exclusive adventure trips to Mars and our Moon, followed immediately by another one enticing the passerby with virgin beaches inside the Long Border, with the caption, The Great Long Beach. A tower wall-screen showed news from around the world, as it happened, while a moving strip across it listed the various important indices of our collective well-being. The stock markets had taken a turn up, happiness was pink. Back on earth, in one smoky corner of the farmer's market sausages sizzled on the grill,and in the open-air restaurant next to it customers sat in a heated outdoors oblivious of the blistering cold surrounding them. I reminded myself to take some Quebec cheese home as I protected my face from the blowing dust and began to cross the square towards Lovelys CafÃ©. The pavement outside was a scene of commotion and for a moment I hesitated. A sign held up over the crowd shouted,Die, your time is past!Yonge and Eglinton always draws the protesters.
It's not only the young, the BabyGens, who want us oldies out of the picture so they can finally inherit the earth. It's also, for completely different reasons, the religious groups who oppose life rejuvenation. Fortunately these pro-deathers, as they call themselves, are fewer in number, though they tend to be dramatic and colourful.
Rejuve, to the monotheists, goes against the wishes of the Almighty God who planned and created the universe just so, arranging a fixed span of life for each soul therein, at the end of which He shall sit in judgment over it. God gives life and takes it away. There is an afterlife, with a heaven and a hell. You have no right dodging His archangel of death to avoid your reckoning. He'll get you anyway. The contradictions in this position are obvious to us nonbelievers. Whether they believe that judgment comes to each soul individually and immediately after death, or there is a collective Judgment Day at the end of all life, the unspoken fear of the God-believers is that with rejuvenation the reckoning gets postponedâin principle, forever. And that won't do for the Almighty. Meanwhile some of His believers show no qualms in doing the archangel's work for him.
For the Hindus and Buddhists, rejuvenation interferes with karma and the cycle of rebirths. Imitating rebirth, constructing new lives at a whim, makes a mockery of karma and the universal law of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. Why prolong life artificially when you will be reborn anyway, continuously, until by your own karma that cycle is finally broken and the self finds bliss? The purpose of life is to terminate the cycle, not prolong it.
I reached the famous display window on Yonge Street occupied by four assorted dissenters in their ongoing protest against, as they saw it, the crude scientism and life-engineering of our terrible modern Age of Kali. For more than two years these self-exhibitionists had threatened to end their lives by publicly going up in flames in this window. Did they expect the world to change then? Technology to take a step back? Human knowledge to obliterate a portion of itself? But graciously they had declared that they would not interfere with the eternal cycleâthe dance of Shiva and the repose of Brahma. They would kindle themselves only at their predestined, allotted times, whichâhere was the catchâwould be revealed to each of them privately during their meditations. Meanwhile the suspense had been mounting, the days were counted, and they were a public attraction. Three of them were of Indian originâtwo bald men in saffron robes and a woman with long, loose hair in a white sari, seated silently on the floor in elegant yoga postures, beatific smiles on their smooth faces and broad white marks twitching like worms on their foreheads; the fourth one was a tall Japanese-featured man with short cropped hair wearing awhite cotton kurta-shirt and pants, and he was standing, head lifted up and staring far away. His hands were joined in front of him in a pranam. Sanskrit chanting and a sonorous droning made up the soundtrack to this scene. The four had already been arrested once, then released, for obviously they had committed no crime. On the sidewalk outside the window were gathered their noisy supporters, wearing saffron or white, handing out flyers, chanting and beating on tambourines. It all looked jolly but was not a place for me to linger.
At Lovelys a few stores up, as I stepped inside the doorway, in the corner to the right I spied Presley Smith, seated back on a brown armchair, reading, his rust-red Afro prominent as a beacon in the crowded room. The armchair across from him was empty and apparently reserved for me, and having brought my order from the counter, I sank into it.
He looked up.âSo you came, Doc.
We sipped our drinks in silence awhile, my own coffee appropriately fortified for my generation, his, I don't know. I wondered what he was thinking as he looked away from me. The place was fairly full and noisy, customers wandered around searching for seats. Did he know the Department wanted him backâhad recalled him? That would explain his elusive behaviourâthe coded reply to my message, this anonymous, crowded meeting place in the city. He was afraid.
âWhere have you been, Pres? We tried reaching you from the clinic. Did you get our message?
He turned towards me and smiled dimly.âWell, here I am, Doc. What can I do for you?
No longer the patient speaking to his doctor. No warmth or show of appreciation at my concern. Yet he had responded to my message, asked me to meet him. He needed me.
âYes. How are you?
That sounded lame, and I began again:âI mean, how have you coped, Pres, with your condition?
âGood. I received a call from DIS.
He raised his eyebrows, then said drily,âThe Department of Internal Security.
âYes. The Department. Have they been in touch?
âWhy would theyâ¦
In the ensuing silence while his glance shifted around the room, I imagined his mind working, debating how much to trust me. Finally he turned back to me.
âAnd what did they want?
We'd been speaking in lowered voices so as not to be overheard. Now I leaned forward and asked,âListen, Pres, have you known that you are a DIS client? Thatâ
âI didn't before, but now I'm not surprisedâ¦
He became thoughtful, then repeated,âWhat did they want?
âThey say they are responsible for you, and they insist that they are the ones to cure your problem, which can get serious. It's nobody else's business, definitely not mine. It's they who gave you your fiction. I am to tell you that, if I see you.
âDoyoubelieve it can get serious?
âVery much so. But I've advised you of that before.
A thought leads to others, begins a chain reaction until the mind cannot control that other life surging in from the past. The result is an angry storm of mental activity, a total breakdown. I had once seen such a sufferer in a professional demonstration. The patient was raving, shouting all kinds of nonsense. The condition has been calledpossession, and has been likened to the superstition of possession by a malicious bodyless entity, a spirit.
âAnd how did DIS know about my problem?
âWe registered your data, updated your medical file, and so on. That must have raised a flag. You are their man. But it's also possibleâ¦
âI suspect that they always have an eye on their clients.
What a word,clients.
He nodded slowly.âI carry a dark secret, then, do I? What am I then reallyâsome schoolyard shooter? A sexual predator? A terrorist?
I said nothing, and he too turned silent, drawing a deep breath as he sat up and looked around him. When at length he began to speak, his hardness had melted a little.
âI'll be honest with you. When I left your clinic, I had a feeling I was being watchedâ¦I felt nervous, actuallyâ¦and later that morning when I reached my work I received a message from something called Abdo Clinic asking me to go see them urgently. I checkedâAbdo is runby DIS. I knew I had to hideâdon't ask me why. Call it instinct. I decided to move in with a friendâ¦I'm sure the neighbours will look after Oscar. My cat.
We watched as two female supporters of the pro-death group took their teas and cakes and sat down a few tables away. Both had fresh, healthy faces, hair tightly pulled back into thick ponytails. They both wore saris.
Presley asked,âYou think I should go to them?
âI think you should.
âThey know you, they are better able to cure you. And besides, they won't let anyone else touch you.
âThey could turn me into someone elseâagain.
There was nothing to say to that. He was right, of course. If he returned to them they would no doubt toy with his memory. He would be back in the hands of the diabolical X, and there was no saying what that mind would dream up to revise Presley Smith. A new edition. But did it matter if he didn't remember his old self? No, but some people remain attached to who they are, they don't want to leave voluntarily.
I imagined that Presley would choose to remain unavailable.
âTell me, Docâhe said and smiled, finally.âWhy did you get in touch with me the way you did? Rather secretive, wasn't it? Do you usually care about your patients this much?
âI like to think so. I called you, no answer. Naturally I was concerned, knowing your condition. I felt responsibleâ youhad come to see me firstâ¦The manner in which I contacted you? Pure luckâ¦
I smiled, he did likewise.
âHow? he asked.
âI was on the Holly Chu site, and while scanning the messages I came across one that I thought could be from you. So I wrote my note and I'm happy it reached you.
âYou knew I was on the run.
âI wasn't sure how you would respond to a call from DIS. I wanted to talk to you in private, see what you had to say for yourself.
He smiled again.
âPerhaps not luck after all.
He didn't reply, glanced away.
I asked him,
âHave you had any more of these thoughtsâI mean, has the condition worsened? Can you control them? You said last time that you could.
He took a moment to reflect, looking out the window behind me; finally he leaned forward and said softly,
âListen, Doc:Abookstore, every wall covered with old books.Abridal veil.Acat barking.These three intruders came knocking on my door recently. I threw them out on their ear! I'll let you know if more of them arrive.
The humour was a poor disguise.
âYou should go to DIS, Pres. They can stop it.
âI'm trying some mental exercises. Yoga. If they don'twork, maybe. He got up.âI must rush, Doc. Stay in touch. See you at Chu's, perhaps.
âContact me if you need helpâ¦
I watched the conspicuous fiery-topped figure weaving its way between the tables. How long could he stay in hiding? How long before he was discovered, how long before his condition overwhelmed him?â
One of the sari-clad pro-deathers had come over and was looming over me, beaming goodwill and exuding a strong and sweet fragrance. I acknowledged with a gesture that the seat opposite me was now vacant and she sat down.
âLife is a cage, she said cheerfully, moving closer as she put a small stack of pamphlets on the table between us. Changing her metaphors, she continued, in a warm, rich voice,âThe cycle of births chains us to the earth, from which we must seek release. I am Radha, by the way. Namaskar. I bow to you.
She joined her hands.
âI'm Frank. I bow to you too.
She giggled. She was a good-looking woman in an unconventional way, full of face, her well-developed figure shifting gracefully in her olive sari. Her neck was white, her arms deliciously plump. The large red dot on her forehead was hypnotic, like a source of her personal magnetism. She sounded quite insane.
âI'm not sure I understand you, I told her.
âLife is an illusion.
And I felt trapped at that moment, in that place. I glanced around; it all looked normal and only too real. Again sheleaned forward, the red dot magnetic. I wondered, quite irrationally, as I caught a whiff of her perfume, if she sang, while she went on with her message.
âReal life is eternal, it is of the soul.
âI'm sorry, I'm not religiousâ
âWhy delude yourself?
At my utter astonishment, she explained,âYou're a rejuvie, aren't you, Frank?
âAnd you are one of those who believe the world would be better off without me in it. What do you want me to do, kill myself?
She laughed again with genuine delight, and I could only join her in return.
âNo, that's going against karma. But you can be part of the Live Krishna movement. And you'll never be afraid of death. In fact, you will become truly immortal. No false face or artificial limbs or transplanted organs, and no false memories. The soul is beautiful and immortal, Frank, the body isâ¦ugly and corruptible. It will for sure rot away, whatever you do. I would like to leave this with youâ
She handed me a brightly coloured pamphlet with a picture of a chubby blue baby floating in the clouds and said,
âCome to our meetings.
I smiled my demurral and we left the cafÃ© together. Outside, she beamed at me and squeezed my arm and joined the singing, tambourine-thumping demonstrators, and I kept walking, free at last from the intoxicated clutches of holiness. Why are the deluded so happy? Or is it the other way around?â
Back in my office, I gave a curious glance at Radha's pamphlet, and before I knew it, it had drawn me in. It had five channels, three of them showing bright, colourful pictures of gods, one gave information about the Live Krishna movement in Toronto and elsewhere, and the last one displayed these lines, apparently mouthed by the blue god Krishna:
As the spirit of our mortal body wanders on in childhood and youth and old age the spirit wanders on to a new body: of this the sage has no doubt
What sage? I wondered for a moment, then realized that the term in the verse referred to anyone wise enough to its truth; in that case he or she would be the sage and teacher. What a democratic thought! But was the truth of this verse so far from the truth of rejuvenation that I practised? People do wander into new bodies, in a manner of speaking, aided by surgeons and plastics and metals; and surely karmic incarnationâif that's the termâdoes not mean the spirit takes the old memories with itself into a new body? I should tell her this!
I pulled out my notepad and placed it before me. With some trepidation I wrote out what Presley had described for me:
A bookstore, every wall covered with old books A bridal veil
Questions flew into my mindâwhere, this bookstore? I tried to imagine one, with physical books on shelves. And a bridal veil? Whose wedding? I could not recall having been to one myself. These images very evidently were from another time, like the antique car. His third fragment was eerie:
A cat barkingFOURTEEN
THE MAN FROM DISwas dressed in a grey suit, white shirt, and what looked like a school tie. He had a striking, narrow face with a deep forehead and prominent nose. His voice had none of the metal of Dauda and his manner was friendly. His name was Joe Green. He sat down across from me and began his spiel.
âDr Sina, I am an admirer of your workâthe therapy, of course, as a senior memory specialist. But more so, your academic work on the transmission of personality traits. Or is it their conservation? Your contribution has not waned over the years, and it has been extremely useful to us at the Department.
âThank you, Joe. That's generous of you. Though I've never been told how exactly you find my work useful.
I was merely teasing. He returned my smile.
âBelieve me, it's used, Doctor. And your work is proudly supported by the Department, as you know.
âYes, and I've not failed to acknowledge that generous support in my publications and lectures.
âOf course, Doctor. We wouldn't think otherwise. And we are always grateful to be acknowledged.
I put him down for a younger GN. He did not seem in a hurry, and after a pause, during which he quickly looked around the room, he continued in the same chatty manner,
âDr Sina. We are well aware that the Department is treated with suspicionâsome warinessâby the public. That's understandable. But it's the security of the nation and our way of life that we work for, and we do our best. No one cares much for the police, but sometimes they are the only recourse when we're helpless. The same with the Department. The nation needs it. The world needs it.
By thepublicI presumed he meant me. What he was saying was thatIwas treating them with suspicion and not fully cooperating. He was here to reassure me. I put in my bit.
âIt's one of our dilemmas, I guess. How to balance the collective and the individual interests.
âThe problem is, of course, the deep secrecy surrounding the Department; not knowing exactly what it is, what its functions areâ¦
Or whether it keeps within our laws, though naturally I didn't say that. There was another momentary silence before he answered.
âIt's necessary. Now Dr Sina, about this patient of yoursâ
âHe should be in our hands, as you've been informed.
âYes, I was informed by Dauda. Tell me, is Dauda a real person?
Joe gave a chuckle.âShe's our intelligent interface. They hate to be called virtual, by the way. I'll add a little secret: she has several personalities, with corresponding voices and names. She can even do Hindi and Arabic!
âMale and female?
âMale and female. He grinned.
âI'm not treating Presley anymore, Joe. He told me he could control his conditionâI have no problem with that. But I was made to understand by Dauda that you'd been searching for himâI expect you've not found him?
âNo, he's still at large, evading our attempts to find him. He's on the runâthough why should he be? He'll be found eventuallyâbut the sooner the better. He is a threat to himself, as you understand.
âAnd to the public goodâor why would you be interested?
âHe's our responsibility, Dr Sina. We're not so unfeeling, we do take care of our own creations.
âWhy not letmetreat him, Joe? If he returns to me, I mean. I can take him off your hands, he trusts me. Why is the Department so worked up about the condition of one man? Your interface Dauda spoke to me twiceâand she sounded menacing. Now here you are.
Joe Green replied, gravely,âAll right. I'll be frankâpardon the punâand this is not to be revealed in any manner whatsoever. We are dealing with a matter of national security here, not just any public goodâyou will understand, Dr Sina. Presley's previous life contains details that are too sensitive and should not come outâand they will not do him any good either.
I opened my mouth to respond but he raised a hand:
âI know. Records of past lives are supposed to be destroyed. But not in special cases, you understand. Or we can't do our job effectively.
âYou mean DIS preserves records.
âIn some important cases, yes.
âWhat details from Presley's previous lifeâ¦
There was no point in asking further. I had known of DIS's mandate to take persons who are deemed threats to our national security and render them harmless. It is one of those measures that the public would rather not discuss or acknowledge. The cities are safer, whatever it takes.
âI'm afraid I can't tell you any more, Doctor. Has he tried to contact you since his last visit?
âNo, he hasn't.
Perhaps spoken too quickly, and Joe's head jerked up ever so slightly as a result. There came a slight change in his tone.
âYou understand that the law requires you to cooperate fully with the Department.
âAbsolutely. I understand. Of course.
âDo you think he's had other intrusionsâthose random thoughtsâDoctor, running around in that brain of his? The lion and the red car, the baby, what next? What have you made of these strands?
He had accessed my records. Hardly unusual, it is what we expect DIS to do and we don't want to be reminded of it; it was rather the casual display of power here and now that was suddenly so disconcerting. To be reminded that you are nobody special, just one entity among a faceless public that is the often invoked nation, to whose collective demands you must submit. Any privacy you possess is a privilege that can be casually and briskly withdrawn.
Joe Green caught my look but didn't flinch. His entire approach, all the charm and deference, had the strength of authority behind it, and the potential to alter or turn off at any moment. He'd not even told me the purpose of his visit, though the threat it contained was evident. Inside those loose features hid a hard man. Dauda was all voice.
I told him,âThe last time he came here he said that these thoughts which had been plaguing him were under control. The lion, and so on. He could evade them, or push them back. The accompanying depression and racing heartbeat were gone too. He was using some mind exercisesâyoga, counting numbers, and so onâto help him. He wasn't in need of a treatment any longer. He was confident.
âHe's not the best judge of that, as we both know. What do you think they meanâthe lion, etc.? Sorry to pester you, Doctor, but you are the expert. Perhaps you should come work for us! What is the lion, if you were to venture a guess?
âThe lion could symbolize a kingâit does in many cultures, including ours. Real, or from a national myth, or a children's story, who knowsâthe lion and the unicorn and so on. And if you go back far enough, perhaps the lion represents a primal human fear of the predator. Or it could be a private code. Maybe Presley was a zookeeper in his previous life.
That last bit was a joke, and I delivered it with a smile, but Joe Green was not impressed. He looked disappointed. He stood up, shook hands.
âThank you, Dr Sina. I appreciate your time. Don't hesitate to call me if you hear from him.
âYou're welcome. I will.
âWell. Goodbye. And with a quick nod he hurried on his way out. At the door, however, like a vintage detective he turned around and fired off one final question:
âDr Sina, what do you think of these Karmics? I couldn't help seeing that pamphlet on your desk.
âThey are entitled to their beliefs. As long as they don't push us older people in front of trains.
He laughed.âYes, but they can be dangerous. Beware of them. Well, goodbye and thanks again, Doctor.â
Shortly after Joe Green's departure, Lamar knocked and beckoned me from the door. There was a wide grin on his face.
âCome and have a look here, Doc.
I followed him outside, but there seemed nothing unusual there. The phone rang and the call was answered at the control desk nearby. I turned to Lamar.
âWhat's the matter, Lamar?
âLook aroundâsee anything unusual, Doc?
I didn't, but before I could respond with irritation, he took a step sideways and flung a hand behind, towards the partition.
I stepped back.âWhat?
Lamar gave a chuckle.âI knew you'd say that! Rather mod, wouldn't you say?
The calming northern landscape that used to adorn the light grey softboard was gone, and in its place was an equally large abstract reproduction. It was the famous Warhol, with Presley's namesake, the twentieth-century icon, reproduced several times over in cowboy gear. Hardly mod. I would have noticed it instantly if I had not been staring at a grinning Lamar. What now? The Elvises would point their guns at us all the time as we went about our work; they would point at me as I sat at my desk if the door were left open. And if it was closed, I'd still know that they were there, waiting to ambush me.
There had been talk of new wall decorations for the clinic, but no decision had been taken that I knew.
âWho ordered it? I asked Lamar.
âDr Otieno. He said you'd like itâhe knows about your patientâeverybody does, he's so conspicuous. Anyway, it's on approval. Don't you like it? We all do, so farâ¦
I knew that Otieno wasn't likely to spare a thought for me. This was no coincidence, or an office joke. He could only have been instructed. There must be a monitor inside the reproductionâan eye, many eyes, watching. And youcould not now sneeze on the premises, let alone scratch yourself somewhere private, without being watched by Elvis.
The rest of my afternoon was free, and I decided to go home.â
As I emerged from our building, a tan and sinewy-looking man of medium height, sportily dressed in jeans, a light blue jacket, and a black baseball cap, and leaning against the concourse railing, seemed to decide suddenly to straighten up and start walking too. He stayed behind me to my right. On my way I paused to meditate upon the river, as I often did. The man was on my left, looking somewhat uncomfortable and hardly engrossed by the river. Soon I continued on, and a few minutes later stopped at the flower vendor, who'd been waiting in anticipation of my custom. When I looked around this time I saw that the guy had disappeared. That I was being monitored was not very surprising; but to be tailed by a physical monitor, as though I were a common criminal in an old detective yarn?
Why did I deserve this close attention? Obviously, despite my friendly exchange with Joe Greenâor perhaps because of itâthe DIS believed either that I knew where Presley was or that he would soon get in touch with meâand quite rightly they didn't trust me to inform them. On the other hand, if I thought he was dangerous, I would have told them what I knew, even if that meant admitting to a deception or two. I'd already advised him to seek the Department's help. But I also believed strongly that hedeserved the privacy and dignity to try and solve his problemâor at least to attend to it. He didn't deserve to be arbitrarily kidnapped andâas he put itâturned into yet someone else without his consent.FIFTEEN
IT WAS A BRIGHT,WARM EVENING, and when I reached home we decided to have a barbecue in the backyard. The setting sun glimmered through the foliage, the river in the distance looked placid and grey. And Joanie looked beautifully composed, clutching a drink after her shower, face aglow, midriff exposed above the light blue cords that are the rage this fall, a black sweater tied around her shoulders. She is practically a carnivore, eats as much meat as she can, despite the health warnings against trace radioactive buildup in the higher levels of the food chain. I prefer what's good for my digestion, grains and greens, which she always scoffs at, saying I need meat more than she does, and it could do me less harmâmeaning, I guess, that I had less at stake. And so, considerate lovers, we compromised: I atemore meat than I wished to, and she a little less. This was our world at its calmest and most blissful.
But on her tablet we now watched reports of the most recent overseas outrage. The headline banner practically shouted, in garish black letters:HORROR INSIDE THE BORDER!In Maskinia a busload of tourists had been waylaid and kidnapped by a militia. This had happened earlier in the afternoon and the news kept rolling in. There were pictures of the captured men and women, interviews with friends and relatives, recordings of the frightened calls some of them managed to make before their phones were taken away. There were the expected angry condemnations by the president and the prime minister, who promised to use all means possible to retrieve the hostages. Will you go to war? asked a reporter. All options are on the table, replied the president, saying in effect nothing. Their political opponents on the other hand were howling for blood.
As the night fell, we lingered together outside, despite the growing chill, she stretched out on the lounge chair and I on the blanket on the ground beside her, the partly bare tree branches rustling overhead, the sky a clear black and the first stars in focus. Once more we soberly repeated the mantra, thanked our good fortune that we lived in the civilized part of the globe, the best in every way, and we wondered aloud why anyone from these parts would wish to visit those dangerous places, stopping short of saying, Serves those tourists right for their folly and arrogance. But then I was reminded of my own visit to Maskinia as a student. A lark in March was how it was billed, that carefreegetaway under a warm sun by a beach, where we were spoilt by luxury and excess. And then the reverse side to the heavenlyâthe shock and guilt of seeing raw deprivation, humanity degraded. The resentment, contempt, envy we saw in the locals during our sojourn into a village.
âFriendly looks too? she asked, just to test me.
âI suppose. Yes. But we felt vulnerable and scared. Even when we stopped and treated the kids to colasâwhich were not supposed to be safe but we all had them tooâand they rushed at us happily, hands outstretchedâ¦That was youthful indulgence, and a long time ago. But we grew up and cured ourselves of our guilt and confused sentimentality.
The ensuing silence drew us into our own thoughts. Mine drifted towards Presley and Joe Green. The Department demanded. What had I got myself into? I thought of Radha. Rather charming, and how she had squeezed my arm. Beware of them, Joe Green had warned. Beside me Joanie stirred, and I became aware that we were being watched. From the hedge out front came a steady chorus of the night insects; in the distance somewhere down the road a girl shouted at a guyâstudents most likely; someone was listening to orchestra music. A figure passed beyond the hedge in the dark, and soon after a car door opened, then closed, and the car drove away. Was that my stalker?
She turned to me.âDo we have a responsibility towards them? Those people there, on the other side?
She had now put on her sweater, for it had turned decidedly chilly. Rushed by a tender feeling, I reached out and caressed the curve of her hip, mathematically smooth.It deserved an equation with exponentials. She put her hand on mine. It felt cool.
âYes, Joanie, I answered,âbut from a distance. We must preserve our well-being now or we'll destroy human life on the planetâand everywhere else. All the culture and civilization, the civic and social fabric of our existenceâa wonderful, complex construct that actually functions. Think about itâ¦we've come to it after centuries of experience, historyâ¦much of it violentâ¦
My voice almost cracked at this, and she gave me a quick look. Where did that emotion come from? I believed what I'd just said but had never articulated it this way, and so strongly, as thoughânow I think about itâI sensed also the tip of a reservation and had to push it back. If we allow doubts about ourselves, then where are we?
We became silent and perhaps she was thinking about what I had just said. Then she observed,
âThis complex construct surely includes charity; surely it includes our relationship with them; surely we're a part of them as they are of us.
âOf course. But a diseased part, then. An incurable part.
âI don't agree.
Later, inside the house, this intimacy extended into lovemaking, and as I lay back I marvelled at my willpowered performanceâlowering myself from the lofty philosophical to the precarious male animal. Perhaps it was the tension of the last few days that was the aphrodisiac.
Why did my sexual performance so obsess me? Because it affirmed my new, rejuvenated life? My worth as her partner?
I was intrigued and unsettled by her line of questioning. I would never have imagined her capable of paying heed to, let alone showing compassion for, those out there who are commonly dismissed as the Barbarians. If she had expressed any serious thought before, I had not paid attention. The young to me were beautiful, selfish, and narcissistic. Perhaps I had got off on the wrong tack with her, seeing all along only her physical flawlessness and good nature to my repaired decrepitude and anxieties. I should have thought of her as a partner and equal in every way. Instead, I'd patronized and babied her all along. I was the narcissist, obsessed with myself.
But then why blame myself only? Shouldn't she have imposed otherwise on me than she did? Did my ageâmy oldnessâintimidate her? She had patronized me in return.
When she was asleep and beautifully sonorous, I gave her a peck on the tip of her nose and padded over to the study.