A girl in my last house had this story about how she found the President.
I’ve never been sure if I believe it or not. I don’t know that I buy this whole idea that he’s still out there somewhere, but I can’t see her making it up. She was one of those quiet girls, you know? One of the ones who go for days without saying anything; the ones who half the time you wouldn’t know were there at all. Not like you lot. It was the only story she told, and she only ever told it the once. Whether it was true or not, I suppose there must have been something about it, cos I’ve never forgotten it.
This was a while ago now, like I said, when I was at the Lagos. You know the one, it was one of those tall, thin buildings down by the spaceport, so close that every time a shuttle came over it made your teeth ache. Got shut down last year. Remember? That was a bad place to be. The owner, Benno, was a real bastard; you think old Katia’s tough, but she’s got nothing on him. We were all shit scared of him. When he was there, you’d get so tense, waiting for the next blow, it was like you were breathing sand. I think we only survived cos he wasn’t around that much. It wasn’t like here, see, you didn’t get the lunchtime trade; no tourist quickies or business lunches at the Lagos. There were freighter crews and some of the blue bastards from the barracks once it got to evening, but for most of the day it was always pretty dead, and you know what it’s like, they’ve always got to have their little deals on the side. Afternoons, he’d be off drinking with some shady buddy or other, and if we were lucky, we wouldn’t see him for hours. It’s funny, isn’t it, what you come to call luck.
If there weren’t any punters we used to go and sit out on the broken chairs in the kitchen yard. It was dusty and dirty and the fumes from the kitchen vent would blow grease on your head, but at least you got to see the sky. We’d get this old drying rack out, and we’d scoop our skirts over it, so we wouldn’t get a beating for a dirty hem. It used to get so hot out there; the yard walls trapped the air in till you’d feel like even the dust didn’t have the energy to move. We’d sit there, sweltering, trying to stop the glitter melting onto our shoulders and our make up running, and we’d have these long, stupid conversations, like you do when you’re bored with the day but you know the night will be worse.
That one time, we were talking about famous people we’d seen. I remember Miri was doing her old ‘the night I balled the Chi!me governor’ routine, and we were all yelling at her, cos we’d all heard it a thousand times before, and even the first time, we didn’t buy it. OK, she said he said he was the governor, but even if he did, how would she know? All those blue bastards look the same, and I don’t really think the governor would get his end away in a dive like the Lagos. I mean, they ain’t human, but they ain’t stupid. The only good bit was when she swiped a credit chip cos he didn’t tip her, and she kept it for two days under her tongue so that Benno wouldn’t find it, then when she finally got out to the changer’s booth, it turned out it was false…So anyway, we were all shouting at her, complaining, and she was shouting back twice as loud, and then in the middle of it this little voice goes: ‘I’ve got a story.’
She was off on one side, a bit away from us, up against the old shed where Benno kept the backup generator. I can’t remember her working name now; some shit with lots of ‘l’s in, I think, that Benno made up. I remember that it didn’t suit her. She was a bony little thing, with a soft, slurry accent; sallow skin, earth-red hair and those pale eyes you see sometimes, the sort your granny’d say could see the wind. Benno used to tell punters she was twelve, got a lot of custom that way. So we all look round at her and she says: ‘It’s about the time I met Renich.’
Well, we all went quiet at that, and Miri goes, ‘This wouldn’t be a political story, would it, dear?’, cos old Benno, he had what you might call definite views on politics. He hated Renich. When I first came, just after the election, it seemed like every evening he’d be stomping around in the bar, mouthing off to someone about how Renich was going to put him out of business, and we all had to pull long faces, like we cared. I remember it was a bit of a shock, at first, cos you know how it was, back in the barrio, everyone talked like Renich was god, like he was going to take the whole planet and give it to us. Or something. I was never much of a one for all that politics shit.
Of course, when the war started, Benno was like the Liberationists’ number one fan. When the city fell, he had them all in, Chi!me too, and we all had to work so hard that after I couldn’t sit down for a week. He had one of them big stills with ‘Wanted for crimes against sentience’ on it projected behind the bar for a couple of years after, till the wall got too stained from people chucking stuff at it. I once saw him knock a girl clean across the room, just for calling it the President’s picture. Whatever you were going to say about him, you wouldn’t want to be talking about Renich when Benno was about, that’s for sure. But he wasn’t there, and Moodie in the kitchen was too deaf to hear us and too old to care and, I don’t know, I guess we wanted to hear it. It’s good when people pass on new stories, you know, you got to learn something sometimes, right? This girl, it was like she didn’t fear Benno at all, any more. She just glared at Miri from out of those pale eyes, and she said, ‘You tell me’.
It was before she came to the city, she said, in her village in the hills. It was the old mining country she came from, I think, out past Gehenna. That’s where I was born; we only came to the barrio after my dad was killed in a cave in. He was one of the last. It got too expensive to shore the tunnels up after a bit and they shut the mines down. It’s hard, up there. You know how they say that Darien hates humans? Well, if it does, those hills are where you know it. It’s all red. Red earth, red rocks, red sun. It never rains, so they have to sink deep wells to get to the water, and then the rock’s so soft it keeps crumbling into it as they bring it up, so everything you drink, everything you eat is red and tastes of earth. There’s no trees, just these little scrubby bushes that sting you if you catch your hand on them, and the stubs of crops poking brown shoots up through the dust and the wind never stops. You wake up with it singing in your ears and when you go to bed it’s still there, singing. When you stood on the rocks behind our house you could see it swirling up whole tall columns of earth, sending them marching down the valley to sweep us away.
It gets in your head, the wind and the dust, turns you strange in the end. There’s a theory about it, this punter was telling me. You know that guy what dyes his chest hair? Always going on about how he like runs the Enterprise Ministry? Well, when he was in last week, he got to jabbering about how they’ve got this new idea, that people are all poor and starving cos of that, like there’s some chemical in the dirt that stops them from getting on, getting anything better. He reckoned that was what did for the old people, as well. I suppose it makes sense, but he’s a stingy bastard, that one, and I reckon you can’t necessarily believe any man who thinks his chest hair looks better orange.
So, anyway. She said how there was this kind of cave outside her village, like a big cavern in the side of a hill. It was supposed to be unlucky, but she’d always gone up there, ever since she was tiny. You know how you had to have a place for trouble? I reckon that was hers. She said there were lines of carving over the entrance like old people writing, and if you dug at the sand on the ground inside, you could sometimes find bits of what looked like a patterned floor, shining blue and green and gold, underneath. This time, she went up there cos she’d just had the talk.
That was what she said – the talk – and you know the one she meant just like we did. That one where you come in and there’s Auntie sitting all plump and sparkling in the best chair by the fan, and your ma says ‘Auntie here’s got a great opportunity for you, it’s very exciting’ and Auntie starts on about what a great job in the city she’s got for you and how you’ll be rich and happy and never have a care again, and she’s even got your ma an advance on your wages, isn’t that lucky, and she and you and your ma all know what you’re talking about, but you nod and you smile along and you think, that’s the first time someone’s bought your smile. I must’ve run five miles when it was me before I turned around, and all my ma said when I got back was that I could come home when Renich had made us all rich. I guess with this girl, when she’d fetched the best iced water and been polite to Auntie, it was the cave that she ran to. And when she got there, she wasn’t alone at all, cos there was a man in it.
He was lying across the middle of the cave floor, snoring. He had a green jacket over his shoulders, a straggly beard and kind of a strong smell, and there was a load of food and pans and a heat ring on the ground round him, like he’d been there a while. Under the jacket, you could tell he’d been a bit fat once, but he was living off it now, like your uncle in a bad year. She stopped in the entrance, and he opened one eye and said: ‘Hello, beautiful. Have you come to keep me company?’ Well, you and me, we’d’ve known what we thought of that, but she wasn’t like that. Even after a year at the Lagos, she’d never get a dirty joke unless someone bothered to explain it to her, and even then she probably wouldn’t think it was funny. She didn’t recognise him either; I guess they didn’t have the ‘Wanted’ stills in her village. She said she thought he was a holy man.
They have them all over the hill country, holy men. There was one outside our village when I was small, I remember my ma took us to see him once. He told us this story about how the old people hadn’t really all died out before humans got here, but went to live in Darien, like actually in the ground, in great, shining cities, and they were still there, just the other side of the soil, waiting for us to deserve to find them, and they were listening to every word we said. Gave me nightmares for weeks. People respected the holy men but they were always a bit dangerous too, like her mother would’ve told her not to go to one on her own. I guess that was why just then she didn’t run off like she should’ve done, but went on into the cave and sat down.
She said he asked her lots of questions: where she came from, what her village was it like, stuff like that. How many people lived there, and how did they live now that there were no jobs and the prices going up every year. She thought maybe that no one had been coming to see him, that he was lonely up there with only the wind and the dust for company. Maybe he had been in the mines once – she couldn’t see him as a miner, but he could have been a clerk – or a teacher, some place richer than there. When she told him they’d closed the school cos they couldn’t pay the teacher, she said he looked so stricken, she put her hand on his arm. ‘I hoped it would’ve lasted better than that’ he said. She didn’t understand then what he meant, she said, but she was sorry anyway. He put his palm over hers and they stayed like that for a minute. Then his hand slipped down to her leg, so she got up and went away.
She didn’t tell anyone about him. He hadn’t asked her not to, but she said she just knew she shouldn’t. I guess she liked having a secret from her ma, you know how you did. The next day she nicked half a pie for him that her ma’d put by in the cooler, together with one of her dad’s shirts and a bit of cleansing oil, for the smell. She never saw anyone else there, though sometimes there was new food and power cells for the heater and once a communicator falling out of the pocket of the green jacket. He never said anything about how they got there. He always greeted her like she was the only one, like there was something about her that meant it was her and only her he wanted to see. I guess there’s people can make you feel like that. They’d make a packet with the punters.
He had a metal badge, you know, the sort politicians wear on their coats on Settlement Day, that old bird on the hill from the middle of the flag, and she said he used to sit with his back against the cave wall, throwing it up and catching it, over and over again. She thought maybe he might have been one of those, what were they called, community workers, you know, from back before the war, cos he talked about how he’d seen the barrio when he first came to the city, the work queue at the docks and kids begging round the rich bastards’ flyers, and how he’d wanted to change it. ‘No one is free unless everyone is free’ he said. Well, it’s easy enough to say. And then he’d go on and on about all this great stuff he’d had, like all the fancy parties, and these dinners that used to go on for ever, and how he’d sit there at the table surrounded by these posh women wearing nothing but their shoes and jewelled holograms all over their skin, and it didn’t sound like he was exactly overthrowing them. So maybe he’d just been another one of them, just another rich bastard, after all.
She got angry with him once. He was going on about the university, about how it had been so great for a bit before the war, cos they were making it so that anyone could go, didn’t matter how poor their family was, and it would…what was it she said? ‘Open the doors for everyone into freedom’, that was it. She said it just suddenly seemed so damned stupid, that he was telling her about this like it still existed, like she had a choice, boasting about it, like she was supposed to be impressed, and all the time he had his hand on her knee again, and she said she just screamed at him. She had to go to the city, but she wouldn’t be going to no university. She’d never go to any of the parties he told her of, she’d never slide through the streets in a flyer like a queen; if there was a door into freedom it was being shut in her face. Nothing would ever get better. This whole planet was cursed, cursed when the old people died, and we were living in their grave.
He took his hand away. When she looked at him, she said it was like she’d never really seen him before, like he was still this old fat guy sitting in her cave, scraping the badge pin on the floor, but at the same time he was something else, something she didn’t know what it was. ‘It would be easier to call it cursed’ he said. It was strange, you know. Listening to her tell it, it was like you could suddenly see him too, like the walls round the yard had changed to red earth and behind those pale eyes and that shushing accent he was talking, looking at us.
‘It’s easier to say it’s Darien’s fault, that we could never prosper here. All we can do is build the black market, so that everything’s for sale. We’ll sell our daughters to the scum of the universe and we’ll get the blue aliens in to keep our peace for us. Some of us will get rich and some of us will starve and for anyone who wanted anything better, well, you see, Darien was cursed. I don’t believe it. I’ve never believed it. It doesn’t matter about leaders; leaders always fail. They get too comfortable, too fond of all those fancy dinners. All that matters is people like you, knowing that things can change and passing that on, even if it is only one story, even just one word at a time.’ He was still scraping at the floor; she said she could see a patch of pattern in it, where he’d got down through the dirt. He looked down at it, then back up at her. ‘The people are what matter’ he said. ‘Even people like you.’
Well, anyway. I guess she didn’t clout him: she would have said, and she went on going up there. She reckoned it was upwards of a month, all told, before the soldiers came. She said she was sneaking out one day with yet another pie for him – and how her ma didn’t notice all that food walking up into the hills for a whole month I don’t know, mine would have gone for me if she’d caught me at it – and she was just at the house door when there was this buzzing whine. It’s a funny thing, how before you’ve ever heard a carrier in your life, you know that damned whine means trouble. It’s like it’s passed down, inherited; like it’s bred into your bones.
It was coming up from behind her, from the south road, and she said it went on past her into the middle of the village. All the villagers were coming out to see what was going on and she just stayed there, by the door, with the pie in her hands. They must have been sitting on each others’ knees in that carrier, she said, cos there must’ve been at least twenty soldiers got out of it, real soldiers, not the local police, and a Chi!me officer with them, standing at the top turret and looking at the crowd of villagers with his thin, blue nose up like there was a bad smell under it. You know how they do. So they got her uncle Mica up against a wall, pummelling him, shouting something she couldn’t quite hear, and then Mica’s son hit one of them over the head, and three of them were dragging him back and her dad tried pull them off and they were hitting him too and they were still shouting something that she couldn’t make out and her dad shouted back ‘We don’t know where Renich is’ and that was when she knew.
Her dad got up and they hit him again. Everyone was screaming, no one was looking her way. She just turned and ran. I don’t know what she thought she could do. Warn him, I guess, tell him to hide, though you would have thought the cave was the best cover around. The only place to hide in the hills is inside them, it’s not like there’s forests or anything, and someone could have followed her. But it didn’t matter anyway, cos he wasn’t there. When she got to the cave, it was empty as it always used to be. All his things were gone: the heater and the pans, the food she’d brought and her dad’s shirt, and the dust was smooth and clear, like someone had swept it before they went. The only thing left, the only thing to show that he’d ever been there, was that patch he’d scraped, blue and green and gold, in the floor.
So that was about it, really. The soldiers dragged a few of the villagers down to the cells in Gehanna, but if any of them knew where Renich was, they didn’t say. Anyway, of course they never caught him. I guess it wasn’t long before she left in the girls’ line with Auntie, herself, like she was taking Renich’s place. The soldiers’d put a load of the ‘Wanted’ stills up everywhere, and she used to study them, when no one was around, before she went. Sometimes she thought they had a look of her guy and sometimes she thought they didn’t. You know the one, it’s not a good picture. When we had it up in the Lagos, I always thought there was something shifty about it, I’d swear it’d have a different expression on its face every evening you went past it. It got so we’d be almost consulting it, like he was a friend to us, to see if we’d have a bad night. Guess even a President is useful for something.
A few days after she told the story, she got away. I’m not really clear how she did it. It wasn’t like Benno didn’t watch us; he might have thought she was broken, but even when she got sent out marketing, she always had one of the guys for a guard. And they were big guys, you didn’t want to mess with them. The story the guard told was that she’d been beside him in the market, and a couple of blokes had started a fight, and when he looked round from watching it, she just wasn’t there. I suppose he could have done something to her, but he was as shit scared of Benno as the rest of us, and I saw the kicking he got for it, too. She had to have had help, I guess, but I never even saw her talking to anyone. She only ever had the one real regular, a youngish guy with a green jacket and not a lot to spend. I don’t know if he had anything to do with it, though it’s true that after she went, we didn’t see him back.
Benno started out looking for her, of course, but he didn’t have much time before they found that stuff on him. And that was weird, as well. I mean, we all knew Benno was as dodgy as the rest of them, for all his ‘legitimate businessman’ ranting in the bar. Bit of Short, bit of PS90, a hydro-rifle or two if you fancy a bit of protection, but he’d never touch Shine, and he’d never touch Chi!me weapons. I heard him say that enough times, over some bastard bleeding on the floor. So I don’t know why he’d’ve suddenly done some deal for both of them, and how the blue bastards would have got wind of it and come busting in the front door just as the crate was coming in through the back. All a bit easy, you know? But then, we weren’t complaining.
I remember, they’d got us all under guard in the street while they went through the house, and they were really going through it, knocking holes in the walls, pulling up floors and throwing everything out of the windows. They had carriers blocking each end of the street and they had three Chi!me on us and another five just holding back the crowd, cos you know how everyone likes a good raid. They’d got up to the top floor, and I was watching them chucking all our underwear down and wondering if I could rescue any of my things, when they brought him out. They had his hands tied behind him, but they hadn’t done his mouth and he was shouting out how he’d been set up, how he’d always kept the arrangement, how he’d been loyal to them, and the squad leader was walking just that bit in front of him, like he didn’t want to be seen with him, like he wasn’t going to listen, and all the while our clothes and make up and bits of glittery stuff were falling around them like shiny underwear rain.
Old Katia bought me when they sold us off to help pay for his trial, so that’s how I got out of the Lagos, and a bloody good thing too. As for her, I don’t know. I’ve thought I’ve seen her, a couple of times. Sometimes it’s just a stranger, like I catch a bit of red hair, or a hill country accent, and for a minute I think, there she is. But I could swear it really was her last month in the food strike, you remember when they had all those pictures of the protest on screen? I’m sure that was her. But was it Renich? Like I said, there’s a lot of strange people up in the hills. This guy in the market was telling me the other day that he never made it out of the city, that he was killed when it fell; that there’s evidence. But I don’t know. I suppose he could be alive up there somewhere, hiding. Hey, maybe he’s underground with the old people, waiting in their glittering cities for us to come and find them. He could be listening to us now, listening to every word we say; listening while we pass his story on, even if it is just one girl at a time.
Published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction issue 36.