A New Beginning
I had been walking along the edge of the sea, waiting for night, the way one might wait impatiently for a train.
Finally, I turned towards the grass and made my way across a film of water, then passing pools and dips, no rocks, just hollows in the sand, with the sound of the shifting waves behind, and the breeze. I picked my way across the pebbles, and up to the high ground. I sank my body down like a block being lowered into cement, closed my eyes and willed the night to harden and set around me.
I first saw her in a blue wrap-around dress, patterned with little white horses, in the open corridor of arts faculty of the university in Bergamo. She was passing through the shadows thrown from the stone columns of the colonnade around the gravel square. Light, shadow, light, shadow, light. Her smile was sun-drenched, the light making her squint slightly as she looked across the stone flags to where I was sitting on a wall. Her smile grew bigger as she stepped out of each flash of shadow, her lips opening, and her teeth and tongue for a moment glistening in the light.
The material of her dress was tightly wrapped around her breasts and waist, and then tumbled like a waterfall to her knees. A neat bow at the small of her back kept the whole thing together. She passed like that, as soft voices spilled out of the big open windows of the library on the second floor of that courtyard, disappearing again like a song being driven into the distance on a summer night.
She came up to me after class, two hands clinging to one side of her stiff green satchel, her bare feet in black sandals, her hips spreading underneath the skintight middle of that dress, and asked if I was English.
We stood for a long time trying to talk. I could barely focus on her without the trembling tenderness I had felt as she walked passed sinking into a sense of violence. I had felt uneasy.
But she smiled, she kept smiling, and we began.
It was the end of September, I had moved to Bergamo, 40 or so miles outside Milan, to study for the year.
In the beginning, in the evenings, we would walk along the old walls of the small town which sat on a hill. We walked into dusk, watching the plain start to twinkle, and the air above it turn a shade of purple. I pulled words out of myself, smelting the strange leaps of my heart into chucky blocks of sentence, smoothened then by the fading light and the hot air, and the knowledge, that soon we would kiss.
She told me about her father, who she said was mad, and her mother, who was so generous, she had ‘deleted’ herself.
“You, know cancelled out.” She threw her hand forward from her throat, matching the air as it left her lips, “cancelled out” she repeated, “she is full of everyone else.”
In those first few months her mind appeared to me as a figure being cut from stone.
Over the first Christmas we were together, we spent four days in Florence. Late one night, we wandered back to our room through the empty back streets, tucked into each other, the cool moonlight resting on the slow flowing Arno behind us, soft in the sureness that we would lie together, loose and in love. I can remember how I felt myself harden as I walked with her, at the pleasure of being alive.
When the year finished in Bergamo, I came back to London to finish my degree and she stayed in Italy to finish hers. A year later, she flew to England to live with me.
During our year apart I had visited her every month. On the first flight out to see her, I stared at the laminated emergency instructions on the back of the airplane seat in front of me and decided that I would marry her. Somehow loving her was buried in the curled cartoon in brace position, and I was filled with the need to act. I needed to be written into her. Give her my name, put our names together somewhere so everyone could see them. That night we drove up to the little town on the hill, to our favourite place where they served cool beers in big oval glasses, and spoke, and kissed, and made plans for the next few days. It was enough to be alive like that with her.
Before she died I wouldn’t have been able to say what we did that year, month after month. I could say that the seasons sang from her skin under the strange light of the arrivals hall, but it was as if I had forgotten everything else, that the details were irrelevant. But since her death, I have been carving out the seconds. I have searched for every little thing that was part of our life together, resurrecting days and nights, obsessing over lost hours – the day of her cousin’s Holy Communion, how she delighted in her father’s efficient, happy movements around the Sunday table, the night she rolled her eyes and nodded when I told her to slow down on the tiny roads of the town where we fell in love. And then, her body, the curl in the side of her mouth as she waited for me to finish saying something but wanted to kiss, her thighs, the inside of her thighs, the sacredness of easing her quietly onto the bed in her house on a cold November night, the air still smelling of her mothers delicious casoncelli.
When she arrived in London I had been renting a studio apartment on the ground floor of a big white town house on Holland Road. A Croatian man in his late fifties rented the other room downstairs. I saw him with a number of different women, always versions of each other. Heels, long coats, messy hair, small mouths, something secretarial, and I always thought they were there on some sort of official business. For a long time, I had presumed the room was a flat. But one Thursday morning, as I left, a woman stepped into the corridor from his room, and the door hung open. I saw the single bed in the middle of the room with barely enough room to walk either side. I glimpsed a shower in the corner, just like ours. The man suddenly appeared from behind the door, and we caught eyes before I had time to look away. He smiled at me, barely winked and then made a theatrical gesture towards the woman to lead the way, so that suddenly I felt like I wanted her too.
The night Elena died I asked her where her blue dress with the white flowers had gone. She hadn’t worn it since she had moved to England. I asked her as she stood in our clammy studio apartment choosing an outfit. Her arms stopped on the hangers for a second. She raised her eyes to the wall above the rail, and said “they are horses, they are white horses, perhaps they look like flowers.”
We had lived in that apartment for eight months. I had a job as a junior reporter on a local London paper and she had found work in a pub just down the road. The flat was too small for us. We shared a toilet with the Croatian man, and as summer came, the place was unbearably hot. Her shifts started late in the day, just as I returned from the office. I would go and drink in the bar in the evenings and sit outside, to get some air, and see her.
She missed Italy badly. I remember now how she stood in front of the huge window at the back of our room, her words battling against the knot of despair in her throat, and said: “We have to make space for the future, and parcel things in the past, I can’t live in my mother’s house forever.”
But she loved her past, and we knew we were somehow going back to Italy, that she would be pregnant in Italy, near her mother and her sisters and the big green fields around her house.
Her mother made me feel important. She hung on my sentences as if my plans for an evening were part of a greater master plan I was carefully executing, and her daughter had been the missing link, now slotted into place for a future that was certain and wonderful. She would fill my wine glass up at dinner, ignoring my refusals, because she believed I would never get drunk.
“They love me, and they love you,” Elena said, as her parents left London, the first and only time they came to visit. We had watched them shuffle along the line to pass security and I was full to the brim with her tenderness for them.
The night she died, Elena wore the blue dress with the white horses. It was June and warm, perhaps a little like Italy. In one of the two photos from the night she is standing on the edge of the group holding a glass, her bag hanging over her shoulder, head tilted almost onto the shoulder of the girl beside her. In the other she is talking to someone, standing outside the bar, and she doesn’t know the picture is being taken. She left the pub at 10pm, alone, and early.
That night I had willed her back so we could make love and I could say sorry about the horses, and explain that that she filled me up and cancelled me out.
Now I lie here wondering if she heard the commotion as the white van left the road and swerved wildly onto the Friday night pavement. I wonder what she was thinking as she turned the corner, heading for the train, and walked straight into the path of the man who would kill her.
He drove a knife into her fifteen times. Again and again, he pushed the blade into her. She buckled onto the concrete, silencing everything, every detail, every smile, every hip-led squeeze between wall and chair at her Sunday afternoon home. He pumped death into all of that.
I count to fifteen now, as I lie on the grass. I met a man in a bar out here last night, who smelt of silage and seaweed. I told him how Elena died and he told me how he blew up a tree stump with a gas cylinder. You take the top off, fill half the cylinder with petrol, drill a hole in it to fit a spark plug, from a car, for example. Then you drill another hole in the bottom of the cylinder and earth it. Then, just touch the live off the car battery, and the thing would blow.
“These days more and more people are pressing the reset button on their lives. Changing jobs, ending unhealthy relationships, maybe even going back to college. But some of us are willing to go to even greater extremes to turn the page in our lives and start over. I guess that’s why we’re all sitting here.”
“I’m sorry, actually I have to move,” said an Austrian called Manfred, who got up and walked to the other side of the room. “I don’t like such a big kind of spider.”
Once Manfred settled down away from the unofficial guest that had found its way in Jason resumed.
“So the Petuba tribe were contacted two years ago and it’s been discovered that at the heart of their shamanic tradition is a brew made from seven Amazonian plants called Yabay. And most, if not all of you, have come thousands of miles to drink it. Can anybody tell me what their expectations of this brew might be..?”
Jacob, an ex-heroin addict from New York state, raised his hand. “I don’t know, I sort of guess I’ve heard it fucks you up.”
A gentle smile illuminated Jason’s face. Helen, who worked in media, raised her hand.“It’s like, the most amazing thing. I’ve heard it can be 20 years of therapy in one night.”
I chipped in. “I’ve heard that it turns hardened criminals into reformed and honest people.”
Jason took a final hand.
“It puts you in touch with the cosmos.”
“Yes,” Jason agreed quietly. “It is all those things, and perhaps none. One thing I can promise, you have already done most of its work simply by coming here...”
Jason surveyed the circle momentarily. There were twenty of us on thick red cushions in a large jungle hut called a maloca. Most were sat up straight, like Jason, but one or two were taking it easier, lounging or laying flat. Then Jason tapped the floor with two fingers.
“So Yabay is described as a paternal spirit and can be a very strict and authoritarian one, at that. He’s here to kick your ass and put your life very much back on track. Now there are reports of this brew having been tried at New York parties and really, we don’t recommend this brew is taken out of context. More specifically, we recommend you take it here in the Amazon with the Petuba maestros. The Petuba have been working with these plants thousands of years and they’ve built up a lot of experience in the process.”
As Jason spoke the sounds of the jungle could be heard. A bee-like insect louder than any bee from Europe. A bird who’s watery warble sounded like a mobile phone welcome tone.
“And part of that process is that you need to follow a dieta for six days before and after the ceremony. There is only one ceremony. Other, kinder brews, such as iboga and ayahuasca can be used perhaps indefinitely but one dose of Yabay is enough for most people outside the Petuba tribe. So firstly, six nights before the ceremony you can’t eat anything and you have in fact just had your last meal for six days. It’s also important that during this period you don’t have sex or masturbate, either. The plants work with sexual energy and any dissipation of it is contra-indicated with the process.”
A murmur rippled round the room.
“That being said, very shortly you will all be asked to remove your clothes. Yabay is a hard taskmaster and will be very angry if you try to hide anything from him. But really, it hardly matters, because the next six days will not be spent with others and the ceremony itself will almost be in pitch dark. Just before the ceremony, you will be taken from the hole in the ground you have just spent the past six days in to here in the maloca, where the ceremony will be held. For your own safety you'll be tied down and a small cup of Yabay will be administered to you. Whilst the medicine takes effect maestros from the Petuba tribe will come round and thrash you with stems taken from all the plants that Yabay is comprised of. The medicine can make you extremely sensitive to pain, so gags will be made available to bite on, and it’s fine if you want to use them. But we recommend you just go with it. Crying and screaming can be extremely carthartic,” Jason nodded, with earnest emphasis.
“But before you take the medicine it’s very important to have a list of what the Petuba call 'yatay-queros' in mind. There’s no exact word that translates the meaning but in the Western tradition it roughly translates to ‘confessions.’ You simply tell the plants about areas you need to work on as a person. And these can be complex, or they can in fact be very simple. You can say, 'Father Yatuba I have dishonoured my parents. Or, Father Yatuba I am a fuck-womble.’ Please just be aware that if you use strong language the maestros may thrash you harder.”Jason let this last advisory sink in, before asking, “So does anybody have any questions?”
“How did somebody think to make a brew out of seven plants?”
“That’s a good question. The Yatuba have a creation story about Yabay. Apparently, one day a father’s only son came back home with a deer he’d hunted in the jungle and his father reprimanded him and said he should have brought back two. And so his son left his father in disgust. But then he fell asleep and had a dream in which he was told to gather the plants and literally make a rod for his own back. He then asked his father to beat him with it and drank a brew made from the plants to remember his experience.”
Another hand was chosen.“What are those animals in the trees that look like squirrel-type monkeys?”
“Er...I think they’re called Squnkys,” Jason replied. The class laughed. “No, those are Petuba monkeys,they’re actually who the tribe have named themselves after. A kind of mascot, if you will.”
After that, we were taken to our holes, which were indeed totally dark. Damp too. If you’ve never been in a hole full of insects and nothing but half a rotten papaya cup of water a day for six days you probably don’t know what six days of hell is.
Certainly by the time I was done I’d lost all sense of who, where or what I was and not one drop of Yabay had passed my lips. Had three days passed or three years? Was I alive or a ghost haunting his own grave? Was I even human any more? Somewhere in the hole I was a jaguar chasing its own prey, I was the prey being chased by a jaguar. I saw places and people I’d long since forgotten. I felt my head start to break open. And I heard the voices of others, though our holes were far apart. Oddly, we were all in this together and all alone at the same time.
Finally, they pulled me out. I was covered in bites, including a few of my own, but it would have been worse had I not rubbed mud over myself, an act of self-preservation I don’t recollect. I’d lost two stone and could barely stand but I went straight to the ceremony. The three kerosene lamps lighting the maloca seemed incredibly bright. The room itself seemed like a solar system. Others were on the floor crying, shaking, moaning or void of all movement. We were a sorry lot indeed.
Jason sat in the centre of the circle with two maestros. All three were smoking mapachos and the tension was palpable. The room was still, yet through the netted windows the incessant sound of the jungle crowded in on us. I saw a cockroach scuttle across the floor, the shadow of Jason’s body was projected by a lamp onto the ceiling of the maloca and he looked gigantic. Then Jason suddenly dimmed the lamps and all was dark.
The only thing I remember next was the thrashing. Father Yabay is perhaps the hardest disciplinarian of them all. The stems of Yabay seemed to break each one of my bones. I screamed for forgiveness. Every skeleton I had in my closet was offered up as a sacrifice. In my life before there were always ifs, buts and maybes but now things were so clear their sharpness made me bleed. I was wrong. It was all my fault. And I was very very sorry.
After the thrashing ended, and it actually can’t have been long, I lay on the floor for hours unable to make myself comfortable, my body excruciatingly tender. Finally, the sacred words came. ‘The ceremony is now over.’
I woke up the next day in a bed so soft it seemed to be made of squnky fur. Two beautiful Amazonians carried me to a bath and bathed and dressed my wounds with salves of the forest. All things considered, I hadn’t come off too badly. A broken finger, a chipped tooth and cracked rib. Bruises that made me look like a bad piece of fruit.
Then they brought us breakfast. Just a broth with no solids in it, to break us in gently, but never has food tasted so good and never will it again. Jason asked for our attention for a moment.“Okay guys, I want you to promise me you’ll never mis-behave again. Promise?”
To a man and woman we all promised, like little children.
“Okay, now the dieta is by no means over but from here on it changes a little. Check the board to see what’s in store for you over the coming days.”
We looked up at the whiteboard, which had the schedule for days 7-12. That morning we were having healing massage, in the afternoon cranial therapy and pottery. The only dictates that remained the same were the clothing prohibition and sexual abstinence but hugs were fine and in fact on day eight we had a class called ‘Embrace the embrace.’ By day twelve we were pretty loved up. We all wore pyjamas and snuggled up in one big bed together watching a Disney movie. The morning before we departed we group shared. Jason gave us a heart-shaped stone and we each in turn held it as we recounted our Yabay ceremony.
One person said, “I didn’t know who or what I was.”
Another, “Not much happened but I saw a beautiful blue light.”
Then somebody said, “I was in agony but I didn’t drink anything. Nobody gave me a cup.”
I didn’t remember drinking one, either. Other voices assented. Then Jason spoke. “Er, just so you know things went a little awry the other day. A gang of banditos dressed in balaclavas broke into the compound, came into the maloca with baseball bats and roughed a few of you guys up. I think it was to do with some money I owe them for cocaine, so I’m sorry about that... That said, the effect of being beaten with baseball bats is very similar to a Yabay ceremony. And some even say it’s not strictly necessary to drink the Yabay, anyway.They report greater benefits from the dieta generally.”
The secrets of the Petuba tribe and their strange concotion, Yabay, would have to wait another time. But that was fine, because we all returned home feeling different. Like we’d left our old selves behind; closed a difficult chapter. Like it was a new beginning.
Nine woke and rose before the alarm sounded. Another perfect day, and why not? He lived in Utopia, and everything was perfect. He could hear the alarm sounding in other rooms: some of his classmates were clearly less alert than he.
Today, his class – eight boys, eight girls – would finish their Education. Everyone in Utopia got A* grades, of course: anything less than perfection was unthinkable. More important, they would be given a Name instead of a Number, and begin a whole Seven Days freedom before beginning the Job they had been allocated. Unemployment was unknown in Utopia. His education was designed to give him the skills to perform any job which needed doing.
He’d had That Dream again. He hadn’t told anyone about it: he half-suspected the Synod which ran the city would be aware of his unsettling Dream. They knew about and controlled every aspect of daily life. However, he hadn’t been questioned. It seemed there were still some things the city Fathers didn’t know.
And yet. Most unexpectedly, he felt … Something. An Emotion? The schooling he’d received over the past eight years was designed to remove all such weaknesses!
He closed his eyes and held his breath, listening for any slight sound.
There! The faintest possible scrape/creak. It was repeated, and seemed to be directly outside his door. As his fingers curled around the latch, he knew: the Question in his mind was “Who?”
“Nine?” The single word throbbed with the unfamiliar concept he had labelled Emotion, but it also ‘felt’ alien, delivered by a Voice he recognised, though not his own.
“Three.” Not a question: a Statement. He hastened to secure the tenuous connection before it was lost.
“I am Nine. Three, stay with me!”
Remembering to breathe (which required a conscious decision) he slowly opened his door. Immediately opposite a corresponding door opened just as slowly to reveal Three, a female member of his class.
“I am not the only one to ask a Question! Three, I have no Answer – yet! But you are not alone. We are … different. But that does not mean We are ‘wrong’: do you hear?”
“Yes. I know your Voice. But how…?”
“I cannot say. We ask Questions. We feel. Come! Talk!”
Nine pulled his door open and backed away, staying where Three could see him. A few seconds dripped slowly past. Three flowed silently from her room and crossed the corridor.
Something was different, something he hadn’t yet had time to name: he had only become aware of its existence seconds ago. Whatever it was, it wasn’t ‘he/him/his’. It had its origin in Three, but sat uneasy in his mind …
He could feel breath surge across his vocal chords, sense the movement of his lips, hear the words so clearly he expected them to assume a physical form, dance across the room. Three nodded, and he knew at once they were ‘speaking’ normally, not exchanging silent thoughts.
“We know the meaning of the word ‘Emotion’, but our Education should make it impossible for us to feel such things!”
Three nodded but did not interrupt. He continued:
“If we live in a perfect Utopia …”
“We do not need these Emotions!”
Three could no longer resist interrupting, completing Nine’s thought.
It was Nine’s turn to nod agreement. Another powerful surge of Emotion swamped his mind: strong, positive, and somehow right.
“I can ask “Who?”: you ask “How?” Perhaps we do not ‘belong’ here?”
Nine could scarcely believe he was speaking such heresy, but he was ill-prepared for Three’s instant and complete agreement – and the strength of the warm, positive emotion he experienced as she replied.
“So there must be an alternative.”
“Not Utopia? Some other … place?”
The idea of anywhere ‘not-Utopia’ was so foreign, neither could find a Word for it. Yet Logic had led them thus far …
“If we leave now, nobody will know! If there is somewhere ‘not Utopia’ we can find it.”
As he spoke, Nine watched his hand drift towards Three, inviting contact. Her hand mirrored the movement. Nine felt himself a passive spectator. Their hands touched, clasped: more Emotions, the most powerful yet, fired his being. With his free hand he opened the door and led Three along the deserted corridor to a door which opened to reveal the perfection of Utopia’s cityscape, the only Home they had known for sixteen years.
The streets were empty. At this time of day, everyone else was either at Work or in school. In the city’s North Quadrant, less than a mile distant, the discreet haze of a shield marked the utter limit of their Known World, the safe, protected community of Utopia. Nine turned to his new-found soulmate and companion.
“When we leave, we cannot return. You understand?”
“We do not belong. We leave nothing: if we find nothing, nothing is lost.”
Three nodded again: Nine sensed a sudden but unmistakeable increase in the pressure of her fingers on his. He gazed intently into her eyes.
“What?” Nine knew he hadn’t sounded the Question Word aloud. He was so tense, he dared not breathe. Three reacted as if Nine had filled his lungs and screamed the impossible Word with all the power he could muster.
“Nothing. You say we leave nothing here. Must we take Nothing with us?”
Nine’s eyes flicked around the Spartan room he shared with seven other boys, all roughly the same age as himself. Identical beds, identical lockers, and without looking he was certain each locker would contain exactly the same clothing, accessories and equipment. Once again he experienced a strange Something he had no name for bubble briefly to the surface of his inmost thoughts. He forced himself to ignore it: there was no obvious way it could be of any practical use if they were going to leave the only home they had ever known.
“A change of clothing. Some few small things, perhaps, but nothing large or heavy – we must move now, and move quickly.”
He strode across the room and shook the pillow out of its valise on the nearest bed.
“Go now to your own room, take some clothing and whatever you want, but no more than you can carry in a pillow case. I’m using one from another boy’s bed, but it won’t make much difference. They will know who is missing as soon as they check! Go now, and hurry!”
Nine opened his bedside locker and studied its pathetically few contents. Two folded one-piece coveralls, one grey, one a pale green, otherwise identical to the white one he was wearing. A cup, cutlery, a small towel: a glowstick, which could be adjusted to provide either warmth for cold hands working outdoors or light in a dark tunnel at night.
“This is all you have, all you own, after eight years of schooling, learning rules written by someone else?”
The newly-awakened Voice inside his head was becoming more critical, less like his own, every time he heard it.
On an impulse he took the grey one-piece from his locker, then raided other lockers for a towel, a glowstick and basic eating & drinking tools. As he left his room, Three’s door eased open and she joined him. Her pillowslip looked to bulge in roughly the same places as his, about three-quarters full. This didn’t surprise Nine: there would be no real difference in what was available to plunder and steal.
Although he ‘knew’ Three had spoken to him without vocalising, Nine’s eyes flickered along the corridor in both directions, alert for any alarm raised at this pivotal moment.
Nine felt another unexpected flood of Emotion, but this was different again. Three’s words were simple, yet carried a subtle hidden meaning. He took a deep breath, grasped her hand.
“One thing we miss: our Naming Day. Gold, I name you, for the beauty of your hair.”
“Blue, then, I must name you, for the colour of your eyes.”
Words were superfluous. Turning as one, the self-baptised Blue and Gold took the first tentative steps on their journey from Utopia to who knew where …