Across the Wasteland Beyond the Glittering City
I met Eleanor at the playground. She came to investigate the screams of my nephew. We were playing ‘Suffer the Little Children’, a game we’d invented together—I hold him upside down by his ankles and shout ‘SUFFER! SUUUUFFFER!’ and he tries to turn himself the right way up.
I don’t blame her for being suspicious. But I really like kids. You see, even now you’re waiting for me to say ‘But I couldn’t eat a whole one’. But I really like kids. I take my nephew out a lot. It winds my sister up—she’s the one who wipes up his snot, and I get the unconditional adoration. But every kid needs one grownup in the family who hasn’t grown up.
When Eleanor had established that I really was Uncle Tim, I asked her to join us for ice-cream. She had a big cardigan the colour of marmalade. I wanted to like her.
Elise was thirteen years old. She was too plump and too clever to be considered pretty by the boys in the other Old Families. But she had hair of the brightest copper, and her eyes were three shades; nut brown, fern green with flecks of rich gold.
Her mother and father had obligingly died in an overseas accident among palm trees and exotic beasts. Elise had been cared for ever since by her old, maiden aunt, who was kind in her own way, but would never have more than three adjectives.
That morning her carriage waited to take Elise to school. The carriage servant Magsy tipped her hat to Elise, but Elise was looking up; a great grey shadow had fallen across the cobbled square. Above them, vast and silent, drifted a dirigible of the Fifteenth Aerial Papacy.
Secretly, it chilled her. But she knew that the Aerial Popes were wise and just, and sustained all order in the city. ‘How wonderful!’ she cried to convince herself.
But the servant Magsy kept her eyes fixed on the pavement. Elise felt a sudden sadness seize her. Those who lived in the City Below were different from her, and could not share the freedom and light of the city.
When we got together, Eleanor didn’t even read children’s books. My friends asked if it was weird, with her having more money and a flat of her own and sunblush tomato ciabatta in the bread bin. But I’d given her the best thing I knew, so I thought we were quits.
I showed her everything I’d read since I was nine. Diana Wynne Jones, T.H. White. We cracked through Nix, Pullman, Mark together. We’d sit up in bed reading the best bits aloud to each other. And we’d read to the nephew as well.
‘What do you like about them?’ she kept asking. I thought she was trying to get to know me. So I told her: The trials, the daring. The way the horrors are really horrible, not banal stuff about serial killers or sex crimes. The horrors are about losing yourself, losing your soul. The friendships that mean the world.
I didn’t guess what she was up to. Then one weekend I’d finished a whole string of books with the same theme: kids grow up in a strict, rule-bound city, and they have to leave the city, and bring back something to save it from doom or stagnation. Fantastic. I’d sailed through The City of Ember, and The Windsinger, and now Mortal Engines had kept me up until two in the morning.
I scooped my hands round her ribs and squeezed her. ‘Look! It’s so good! I could never—I’d never think of…’
‘I could.’ A dismissive grunt.
‘I’m going to write a book. Like that.’
Most people think they’ve got a book inside them. But they don’t talk about it as though it’s a tooth they’re having removed.
‘But I love the city! I could never defy the just laws of the Aerial Popes!’
‘The city is dying under their rule,’ insisted Fabian. His bravery shone out of his ugly face and made it admirable. Suddenly Elise felt a tug on her skirt. It was Billy, Fabian’s brother. Billy didn’t speak like other people.
‘Esile! Esile! Epacse ssorca eht ssenredliW, Esile!’
‘Leave her alone, Billy,’ said Fabian gently. We can get the servants to make us crumpets. You like crumpets, Billy.’
‘No, Fabian!’ said Elise in a whisper. ‘I think—I think there’s something that Billy’s trying to tell us. Maybe it’s connected to the strange mark on the back of his hand, the one that’s in the same shape as the Great and Fatal Papal Staple Seal…’
‘Thank you, Elise,’ said the grave and serious servant girl Magsy.
‘I had laboured for years under the city, not thinking that I might have a claim to these fine boulevards, these pleasant parks, and what is more than this all, the right to choose my own path in life. Yet somehow five minutes with you and I’ve been persuaded to a kind of cheap, individualist radicalism. I am in your debt eternal, Ma’am.’
‘You mustn’t call me Ma’am any more,’ said Elise. ‘You must call me Elise; for we must be good friends, or even sisters, on this journey into the Wilderness. Although clearly, as no legal change has been enacted in the city, if we’re caught, I’ll be sent to my room without any crumpets, and you’ll be tried for insurrection and sold, or shot.’
And Magsy held out her firm strong hand, and Elise took it, like half-arsed sisters indeed.
It got too cold to go to the playground. She stopped reading to my nephew. It seemed a bit weird, avoiding a kid so you had more time to write for kids, but what did I know? She kept asking me what I liked, but she didn’t want to know me better. It was market research. I was a focus group of one.
Once she asked me, ‘What don’t you like?’
‘Talking pets, flying pets, magic pets, people with weird-coloured eyes, elves with blue hair and purple eyes who turn into magic pets.’
I didn’t mention the things that really infuriate me: kids with disabilities who turn out to be mystically gifted. Or kids who wait and wait for the family Gift to turn up—psychic, magic Gifts—and then it does and it’s three times as strong in them. Sometimes kids are just disabled. Sometimes you’re just not gifted, no matter how long you wait. She seemed annoyed at my list, anyway.
My nephew didn’t miss her. He said she always read him girly books. I told him that not everything was about gore and flaying, and that feelings were also important for boys. And he made a farting noise, and I read him Darren Shan’s Vampire Circus Trilogy.
Such terrible news! Her aunt was dead—her aunt, so old, and maiden, and kind. She had looked after Elise for eight years, but somehow earned nothing better than a long fall off a high building.
Magsy squeezed Elise’s shoulder with her strong, capable hand.
‘It’s alright, Magsy. She would have wanted us to go on, to save the city. We can’t turn back now—we need the information that will expose the cabal of evil Aerocardinals.’
Fabian nodded. ‘In a way,’ he said, ‘Your aunt’s death is only relevant in as far as it adds an emotional frisson here, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like losing your mother or your father.’
‘Ckuf reh!’ babbled Little Billy. ‘Ckuf lla fo su, s’ti ton ruo tolp, si ti? Edud, s’erehw ym ytiroiretni!’
Elise gave Fabian a stern look. ‘I lost my Father and Mother also. In an unspecified accident in a neocolonial fantasy country.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Fabian acknowledged. ‘We never hear about them, either, do we? I daresay your deceased aunt will get just as much airtime in future.’
‘Do I even have parents?’ asked Magsy.
But Elise was silent, overcome with grief, and the four of them trudged on across the Wilderness.
I read her first draft. It was all icing, no cake. All mouth and no trousers. All smoke and mirrors and flying talking magic ponies. The trials weren’t scary, the politics were dodgy, the boys were surly and the girls were pretty. Every trick in children’s fiction nicked and filleted, no soul. No kid would fall for it, no kid would stand for it. That night, she called me ‘Moominpapa’, but I couldn’t call her ‘Moominmamma’ any more. I made a couple of suggestions. She didn’t take constructive criticism well.
Elise gazed around her old rooms as though seeing them for the first time. She stepped up to the full-length mirror. The long days with little food had altered the shape of her body and face. Now she gazed at her new sharp cheekbones and her trim figure with an admiration likely to incite eating disorders in anyone watching her.
‘I’m beautiful,’ she thought. ‘Even though I’m supposed to value my intelligence more than my appearance, I’m beautiful. I suppose my life can’t be a parable of self-development if the heroine stays fat.’
I should have remembered that time I said I wanted kids. I’d put it down to it being early days, coming on too heavy. But she looked at me: ‘You? With a child? You are a child’.
She booked a week in Paris and she told me that when she got back, she didn’t want any of my stuff in her flat.
I was burning a CD of all the things I’d downloaded onto her computer. There was a new email from her literary agent. It said ‘great interest from publishers’ and ‘a surefire crowd-pleaser in a packed-out marketplace’ and ‘bidding on the basis of the first three chapters.’ And ‘send a completed manuscript ASAP’.
It only took me an afternoon. Most of it had been festering away in my head ever since I’d read the manuscript, and it was nice to let it bubble up and out across the pages. A touch here, a word there; an entire chapter on the anthropophagous tendencies of talking animals. I hadn’t known I was so creative.
In fact, I’ve been wondering about writing something myself. I’ll have more free time, now I’m single, and it’ll be too cold to go to the park for a few months. It’d be all my own work, though—not a collaboration, like it was this time.
‘So the Wasteland beyond the city…’
‘Didn’t lead anywhere. It’s a wasteland.’
‘And the strange language Little Billy talked!’
‘Billy has speech problems. But I’m sure if we close our eyes and concentrate, we can make his disability all about you! Right, Billy?’
Elise looked at Fabian sternly. He added: ‘I don’t think being bitten by the talking horse helped Billy, either.’
‘But if we haven’t brought back anything to prove the truth…’
‘Never mind, Elise!’ Magsy said, with a tender sisterly smile. ‘It wouldn’t have worked in any case—you’ve got absurdly naïve ideas about the circulation of information in a military theocracy!’
’...but, then, we’ll be punished!’ cried Elise.
Fabian shrugged. ‘Yep. Still, we’re minors, and we’re both aristocracy. We’ll get off with a slapped wrist each.’
Magsy slipped her strong, square-fingered, working-class hand through Elise’s elegant, skinny leisure-class arm. ‘Don’t worry, Elise. I’ll stay with you.’
Elise closed her eyes, too overcome with joy to speak. She knew her friend-sister beside her was also thinking of the trials they had endured together.
‘Or maybe,’ concluded Magsy, halfway to the door with Elise’s diamond bracelet in her overall pocket, ‘I’ll run.’
By Esther, 22 March, 2006; direct link.