The death was reported last week of Mr George Cook, at the age of sixty-three. Mr Cook was a well-known member of the Labour Party in the area. For some years he was secretary of the Trades Council, and in 1964 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Borough Council. He leaves a wife and two children.
Kulina carefully cut out the small paragraph from page 13 of the North London Weekly Standard. The immediately adjacent articles were headed ‘Cruel burglars put dog in washing-machine’ and ‘Wham! fan calls hamsters George and Andrew’. Then he stuck it on to a piece of card, and dropped the rest of the newspaper through the oblong slit where it was whirled away by warm air to be recycled.
‘I think we’ll put that in both the printed text and the video,’ he said. ‘It’s a nice indication of how his own age saw him as compared to how we understand him.
‘And that,’he went on, ‘is just about it finished.’
‘And about bloody time,’ said Rhedyn.
It was now five o’clock in the afternoon on the first of September. The three of them had been working, with only the briefest of intervals, since three o’clock that morning to meet the deadline they had set themselves. ‘So,’ said Rhedyn, ‘we get it to the printshop first thing in the morning. Then we can have the rest of the day off to relax and get ourselves ready for the Assembly on the third.’
They now shut the manuscript in a cupboard. It was quite a substantial piece of work. The written text would run to some four hundred pages. This fell into two parts. The first two hundred pages were a narrative biography of George, telling his life-story with a few short chapters of political analysis. The remaining two hundred pages consisted of a series of appendices, giving background historical and statistical information and long passages from diaries, letters and tapes. The video also fell into two parts. The first was a narrative outline of George’s life, lasting some thirty minutes. The remainder consisted of a series of illustrations, which could be called up in any order by code-number, and cross-referenced with the written text. Some illustrations referred specifically to particular incidents in the narrative; others merely allowed a curious reader to see what a twentieth-century engineering factory, picket line or railway train looked like. The reader could therefore begin with either the written text or the video, and hearshy could move from one to the other in whatever pattern hearshy chose.
The three of them then made their way to the canteen. September, Kulina thought, was going to be a month and a half. The video-book would appear and we should see what people thought of it. Not only Chilgrove’s recall, but the whole budget debate would be settled. And, what preoccupied him most, Rhedyn would give him an answer to his proposal for a world tour. He had, of course, not dared to mention it to her again since she had told him she would give a reply when the Central Assembly had voted on the budget. But he, Huelva and Rhedyn were constantly aware of the tension, even when they were working together on the recall of Chilgrove or the video-book. At least, thought Kulina, it will soon be over and we shall all know where we are.
* * *
The day chosen for the special Assembly was fine and warm. As delegates came off the strips and up the steps they saw two people wearing badges saying BE A HEDONIST AND HAVE FUN who were giving out leaflets headed ‘Historians are living in the past’. Kulina (now a full delegate), Huelva and Rhedyn arrived. Rhedyn was tense and anxious. Huelva too felt worried; was Rhedyn going to lose her temper and throw the whole thing away? Kulina, by contrast, was much calmer. He had decided to look on the bright side and to see the positive advantages of his ambivalent situation. If Chilgrove was recalled, he would rejoice, for the History project would benefit; if she was not, he would also rejoice, for it would make his dream of a world tour more likely to come true.
Looking around the hall, Rhedyn saw a number of unfamiliar faces. Various workplaces had changed their delegations, either because of absences on holiday, or because people with a special interest had pushed themselves forward. So this was not even the same Assembly that had voted in principle to support the History project. The morning seemed set to be an unpredictable one.
Chilgrove, too, was looking round the room, trying vainly to estimate the potential votes on either side. Today, she realised, was the crunch. If she was recalled, she would have little chance of ever becoming a delegate again. And yet, through her years of experience, she had gained the ability to look at society as a whole in away that few people succeeded in doing. How sad that such judgment should be wasted – and all because of the obsessions of Rhedyn and Huelva.
The meeting opened and a Strip Guard called Gairich was elected as chair. Since the requisition for a special meeting had been submitted in Rhedyn’s name she was called to introduce the discussion.
She began by announcing the resolution she wished to move, namely that Chilgrove be recalled as delegate to the Central Assembly forthwith, and that a fresh election be held to choose a new delegate to serve until next April. Rhedyn then started to explain why the right of recall was so important to democracy. Societies in the past has worked on the principle of leaving political power in the hands of a minority, while the majority of people remained in passivity. The right of recall meant that every delegate had to be answerable at all times, that there was no need to invest absolute trust in anyone.
She then pointed out that the struggle for the right of recall had lasted a couple of centuries. She mentioned the Paris Commune and the Russian soviets, and went on to cite some examples from the life of George Cook, beginning with his attempt to recall a Labour MP who had defended strike-breaking.
But as she got immersed in the details of George’s life, Rhedyn was beginning to lose her audience. Those who had heard her before wondered why she was so obsessed with this obscure individual from the twentieth century. Those who were new to it found it hard to understand where the argument was leading to. Huelva, who was sitting on the row in front, turned round and caught her eye. It was only a rapid glance but it warned Rhedyn that she must do something quickly to regain the initiative.
She explained briefly how the two proposals had been put forward, how Chilgrove had stated her position, and how Chilgrove had then, after the earthquake, announced her change of mind.
‘I do not question,’ she said, ‘Chilgrove’s sincerity in her change of mind. Sincerity is a great virtue. But it carries a price. Chilgrove changed her mind. That was an honest and a commendable thing to do. But this Assembly did not change its mind. Chilgrove must prove her sincerity by being willing to renounce her delegacy.
‘Some of you may wonder why I spent so much time talking about George Cook. George Cook was a man of sincerity. He was always willing, indeed happy, to renounce a delegacy because he thought a point of principle was more important than any elective office. I challenge Chilgrove to show that she is as honest and sincere as George Cook.’
Now the pieces of the jigsaw were beginning to fall into place for the audience, and the more combative tone was arousing them.
‘Finally,’ said Rhedyn, ‘I want to argue that it doesn’t matter who is delegate. Any single person in this room could be delegate; anyone from any of our workplaces could be. We don’t believe in a special class of professional politicians. So in any other year, in any other circumstances, Chilgrove would be as good – or as bad – a delegate as anyone else. But in this particular situation Chilgrove – as a result of her own integrity – has disqualified herself, and if she will not stand down we shall have to recall her.’
By now the audience had picked up the logic of Rhedyn’s argument. Many rumours had been circulating of a personal vendetta between Rhedyn and Chilgrove. Rhedyn’s calm and scrupulous manner, her sharpness in attack but her studied avoidance of personal abuse, had set the record straight. There was a round of applause.
The first speaker against the motion was Pignola. Today his hair was tricoloured – mauve, turquoise and white. He began brusquely:
‘What struck me most about Rhedyn’s contribution was her arrogance. Let me remind you what Chilgrove told us at the last Assembly. She said she had been influenced by the earthquake – and by what people were saying and thinking after the earthquake. The earthquake was a tragic occasion for us all; but it was an occasion from which we all learned something. Or almost all. Rhedyn seems to have learned nothing. And she thinks that she can pronounce that because she has not changed her mind after the earthquake, then no-one else has.
‘Chilgrove, on the other hand, has shown just the balance of humility and courage that we need from a delegate. The humility to listen to others; the courage to stand up and give a lead.
‘And let me remind you what this debate is about. Rhedyn has tried to create an impression that Hedonists are devoted to crude and bestial pleasure, while the Historians are high-minded idealists; that we want to fuck ourselves silly and play on roundabouts while they are pursuing the True, the Good and the Beautiful through the eons of the past.
‘It isn’t true. What we stand for is progress and what progress means is ever greater control over nature by humanity. The ability to maximise pleasure is just one part – but a vital part – of that progress. I have a vision of the future – of a future where human beings can exploit nature to the full for their own satisfaction.
‘Citizens, there will always be scarcity and therefore we shall always be compelled to make choices, but the margin of choice can always be increased. Let us commit ourselves to increasing it. Even if we lose this debate, one day our proposals will be implemented.’
Pignola’s vigorous riposte brought him more applause than Rhedyn had received. Gairich was aiming at a balanced debate, and tried to take speeches for and against recall in alternation; but more speakers wanted to support Chilgrove than were backing Rhedyn. Two delegates who had been at the June Assembly stood up to say that they had changed their minds since then, and had withdrawn their support from Rhedyn’s proposal, so that Chilgrove was quite right to respond to what she perceived as a shift in opinion.
Rhedyn began to be very worried that the meeting was going against them. Then Huelva stood up to speak. ‘Citizens’, she began, nervously as ever but simply and clearly. ‘I want to take up Rhedyn’s point that anyone can be a delegate. She’s right. We don’t have professional politicians in this society. If Chilgrove is recalled, then I intend to let myself be nominated as a replacement delegate. Not because I have any special talents. My talents, if I have any at all, are as a historian. I’m not good at speaking in public.’ And, she thought, it’s given me a filthy stomach-ache.
‘But,’ she went on, ‘I am passionately concerned about the budget debate that’s going on at the moment and I want to fight for my point of view. So I’ll give a pledge here and now – and it will be preserved in the video-record of this meeting – that if I am elected today I will never again put myself forward as a candidate for the Central Assembly from this or any other local assembly. And what I want to ask is this – will Chilgrove give a similar pledge? She’s been arguing all the time that what she represents is the ordinary citizen in the workplaces, the people who don’t like too many meetings. But how can she claim to be their voice if she isn’t one of them, if she’s the sort of person who wins delegacies year after year after year? If she’s claiming to speak for the rank and file, then she must accept that any of them could take her place. If she’s as sincere, if she’s as committed to democracy as she claims, then surely she will give the same pledge that I’ve given.’
Chilgrove said nothing. A few delegates looked slightly disapproving that she had not responded.
The next speaker came from the health centre. ‘I don’t want to say much. But there is one point I have to make. Chilgrove says she’s trying to represent what the people in the workplaces are saying. But how does she know? Rhedyn and Huelva have been round the workplaces, putting their point of view, and answering questions. I think they’re the ones who really believe in democracy.’
This brought quite substantial applause. The tide is turning, thought Rhedyn.
Then Chilgrove asked to speak. ‘Citizens. I had not intended to speak at this meeting. I have made my position clear at three Assemblies and I have nothing more to say. If this meeting wishes to recall me, I am in its hands. I don’t feel I need to defend myself.
‘But I don’t think it is in anyone’s interest that we should have conflict and division and distrust – especially at a time when we’re still recovering from the earthquake. We need a united community. So I want to put forward a proposal that can bring reconciliation. I said in July that I was now convinced that Pignola’s plan was the better one. I still believe that sincerely and will not change my mind. But I recognise that I am the delegate of this Assembly. And this Assembly has the constitutional right to pass a resolution giving me a binding instruction to vote for Rhedyn’s proposal. I assumed last time that everyone was aware of that right, and chose not to exercise it. But I gather from talking to my friend Rhedyn that she thinks some delegates were unaware of that particular clause. So let me suggest to Rhedyn’s supporters that instead of demanding my recall they should move a resolution giving me a binding instruction to vote for their resolution. There are, of course, many other items which are to be discussed at the Central Assembly as well as the one question with which this Assembly seems so preoccupied, and no-one has questioned my competence with respect to any of the others.’
She’s clutching at straws, thought Rhedyn, she’s fighting for her political life. Rhedyn looked round and saw a look of fury on Pignola’s face. Clearly Chilgrove’s offer had not been planned in advance and he regarded it as a betrayal.
The next to speak was Kulina. ‘I’m afraid Chilgrove’s compromise is not acceptable. Let’s look at the realities of the situation. There are about forty uncommitted votes at the Central Assembly. Chilgrove will accept a binding instruction on how to vote. But the Constitution makes it quite clear that a binding instruction refers only to how a delegate shall vote, not how hearshy shall speak. So if we accepted Chilgrove’s suggestion then she would have to vote in favour of the History project – but she could use her very considerable skills as a speaker and a lobbyist to persuade forty other delegates to back the Hedonists.
‘Those of you who have been impressed by the accounts of Chilgrove’s sincerity and the genuineness of her change of heart may well think that she would actually feel under a moral obligation to carry on defending what she believes in so sincerely. Those of us who think there is some evidence of duplicity in Chilgrove’s record also tend to think that she might do something of the sort.’
The logic of this clearly impressed a number of delegates. Kulina saw Rhedyn smile at him, and he was glad to have won her approval, even if it meant that he had just cut some of the ground from under his prospects of a world tour.
Gairich, who was proving to be a very fair and competent chair, ruled that the resolution for recall was the motion under debate and therefore had precedence. The proposal for a binding instruction could be put only if Rhedyn withdrew her resolution. Alternatively it could be moved later if the recall motion was defeated.
All the arguments now seemed to have been put, so Gairich moved to a vote. Tellers were appointed, and a careful count had to be taken as the margin was close; but there was no real doubt that the motion was carried. Chilgrove was recalled by a vote of 133 to 111. She felt a deep and bitter disappointment, but was determined not to let it be seen. Now the vote was over a number of delegates were leaving the hall. Chilgrove slipped out with them, but did not reappear. It was to be a very long time before Rhedyn or Huelva saw her again.
Nominations were now invited for a replacement delegate. Huelva’s name was put forward. After a little discussion among Hedonist delegates Pignola was also nominated. This time, therefore, the vote was quite clearly a choice between the two proposals. And Huelva won by 139 to 98. As the meeting dispersed Pignola came up to Rhedyn. ‘I’m disappointed I lost,’ he said, ‘but it was a good fight. I enjoyed it. Maybe we shall meet again sometime.’
‘Yes,’ said Rhedyn, ‘maybe we shall. And maybe I shall win again.’
* * *
‘Pignola’s right. Having fun is the only thing that matters,’ said Rhedyn. Anyone who had heard her speak earlier that day would have found it hard to understand her changed position, until they saw the explanation in the three empty wine bottles standing by her plate. But since the only person listening was Huelva it didn’t matter much anyhow.
Rhedyn and Huelva had agreed a couple of weeks earlier that if Chilgrove was recalled, then they would have a night out together to celebrate. It was to be a secret between them; Kulina knew nothing of it. They had gone to the area that used to be Soho, to one of the best artisan restaurants in London.
In the artisan restaurants, as distinct from the normal self-service canteens where food came straight from the machines, meals were cooked individually by expert cooks. For a long time access to such restaurants had been rationed, so that no individual could eat in one more than once a fortnight. But as supplies and staff had increased, the restriction had been lifted,though few people chose to eat such luxurious meals more than twice a week. Different restaurants specialised in particular styles. There were, for example, a growing number of vegetarian establishments. Vegetarianism, which had more or less died out in the hungry years of the mid-twenty-first century, when people ate anything they could lay hands on, was beginning to become widespread again, and Rhedyn predicted that it was likely to become a major issue of debate in the future.
But neither Rhedyn nor Huelva was a vegetarian, and tonight they had eaten taramasalata, a mixed grill and zabaglione, all prepared in the unique style of the restaurant. And they had drunk a great deal of high-class wine. Wine could be summoned from the cellar by pressing numbers on the telescreen control panel at the back of the room. But when Rhedyn went to collect a second bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape 2084 the telescreen displayed a message that this particular wine was now in short supply and customers were asked to take no more than one bottle so that it could be shared round as widely as possible. Rhedyn, of course, took a socially co-operative attitude and summoned up two bottles of Beaujolais instead.
Rhedyn and Huelva left the restaurant feeling happy, with a substantial quantity of wine inside them. They walked through some small back-streets where there were no strips, down to Trafalgar Square. Then they rode the strips down Whitehall and walked out on to Westminster Bridge. For a while they stood silent, arm in arm, surveying the moonlit river and looking round at the city, its elegant buildings and its green open spaces.
Rhedyn remembered Wordsworth’s famous poem, and wondered what Wordsworth would have made of London in the twenty-second century. She looked over to the large open space where the Palace of Westminster had once stood, remembering how the angry mob had burned it down in 2053.
She turned to Huelva, kissed her cheek, and said: ‘If Pignola and friends could see us now, they’d know that studying the past doesn’t stop us living in the present.’
* * *
Rhedyn turned the golden tap and hot water gushed into the gold basin. As she washed her hands, she read the quotation on a plaque on the wall:
When we conquer on a world scale, we shall make the public lavatories in the streets of some of the greatest cities in the world out of gold.
V I LENIN: On the Significance of Gold Now and After the Complete Victory of Socialism (1921).
When international trade had been abolished, there had been nothing else to do with the Bank of England’s gold reserves, and Westminster local assembly had decided to make Lenin’s prophecy come true.
Rhedyn thought of Lenin, thought of those last years when he had lain ill and watched the revolution he had made crumbling around him. And yet, amid war and famine, he had kept his vision of the future. And she thought of her own life, the pleasant evening spent with Huelva – no greater problem to deal with than a wine-swollen bladder – and the even more pleasant night that lay ahead. Did we, she wondered, could we deserve to be so much more fortunate than those who made it possible for us…?
* * *
‘The first day wasn’t nearly as bad as I had thought it would be,’ said Huelva as she sat in Rhedyn’s room in the cluster-house. ‘We didn’t get on to the cultural and research budgets; that’s for tomorrow. There are actually quite a few other important decisions to be taken. But I talked to some of the uncommitted delegates. All the delegates have had copies of the video-book sent them. And a lot of people had heard about the recall debate and had followed the issues. So I think it’s going to be all right…’
* * *
Kulina turned on the telescreen and pressed the ‘Criticism’ code. He remembered that for centuries being a ‘critic’ – a literary critic or a theatre critic or a music critic – was a highly specialised profession. Such a notion was now hard to grasp. Anyone who read or listened or watched was a critic; hearshy commented on what hearshy experienced, and told hisrer fellow-citizens about it.
Of course most people did this in conversation, but the ‘Criticism’ channel on the telescreens was open to everyone. Anyone who read a book, or saw a performance or a video, or heard a piece of music, could type hisrer reactions into the telescreen, and they would remain on file for three months, so that anyone wondering what to read or watch or listen to could flip through them to get ideas of what was around. Critiques could be recorded of any work, old or new. Kulina observed that someone had just seen Hamlet and wanted to tell the world about it.
But what Kulina was looking for was critiques of The George Cook Story. The video-book had been out for a week now, and it was quite possible that someone had put in a critique.
Kulina flipped his way through the index and found to his delight that there were already three criticisms on file. All were short, and could be read on the screen. If they had been longer he would have printed them.
The first simply noted that the video-book ‘has succeeded in making that eminently boring period, the twentieth century, seem interesting.’
The second welcomed the approach to history used in the video-book – the digging up of unremembered individuals. ‘How many more such stories are there to be dug up?’ it went on. ‘Hopefully, if the Museum gets the additional budget allowance it is asking for, then we shall get many more.’
But it was the third that was the most interesting. ‘In my estimation The George Cook Story has the structure and content of a tragedy. Brecht wrote of his heroine ‘Mother Courage’ that she learned nothing, despite all her suffering. Sadly George Cook too learned nothing. Throughout his life he remained entangled with the Labour Party, with its politics of passivity and piecemeal reform. He never learned that if you merely wound a ferocious beast it becomes more ferocious; the only safe thing to do is to kill it quickly. It was only when people began to break with the tradition George Cook represented that real historical change became possible.’
Uncharitable, thought Kulina, who had grown to love George over the previous six months; uncharitable but not untrue.
* * *
‘I now propose to proceed to a vote on the question of the final component of the cultural and research budgets for the year 2018.’ declared the chair of the Central Assembly. ‘I think if I refer to the two proposals as the Hedonist and Historian proposals, as they have become popularly known, everyone will be quite clear what they are voting for.’
This was it, thought Rhedyn, the climax she had been working up to for six months. In a few seconds it would be over. She had watched every second of the debate, including a very creditable speech by Huelva, on the telescreen.
Now tellers were appointed, hands were raised and in a few moments the figures appeared on the screen: HISTORIANS – 108: HEDONISTS – 86.
* * *
Two days after the vote the central statistical office sent papers to the Museum setting out the precise budgetary measures adopted. The Museum would be allowed to recruit another five hundred staff. This would permit it to substantially expand its research work.
Meetings were held immediately in the Museum to discuss implementation. Although the increase would come into force only on the first of January, plans could be made at once. Interviews would be started within two weeks. A major training programme would be initiated. The method of training – apprenticeships under the individual supervision of guild-registered historians – was very labour-intensive and would involve substantial redeployment of existing staff. The George Cook project would now provide the basis for a major study of labour movement activists between 1945 and the early twenty-first century. There were hundreds, if not thousands, more George Cooks waiting to be resurrected. And proposals for further research projects were already being generated. A study of what happened to the radicalised students of 1968 in later life. Mutinies in the Second World War. Anti-war campaigning from the 1920s to Aldermaston. The experience of anti-racist organisations from the 1960s onwards. Women in industry during the Second World War. Rebellion and dissidence among school students…
* * *
Rhedyn was sitting in the research room where the work on the George Cook project had been done. She was examining the first draft of an interview schedule. She felt relaxed and amiable; all her worries were over for the time being. The door opened and Kulina walked in.
‘Hello,’ she said, ‘I haven’t seen you since the vote. Wasn’t it wonderful? Where have you been?’
‘I was ill for a couple of days,’ said Kulina. ‘I think I was just overtired after all the work we did on George Cook.’
‘Are you all right now?’
‘Yes, fine. And I’ve come to remind you of your promise.’
Rhedyn suddenly looked tense and said nothing.
‘You did promise that when the vote was over you’d give me answer about the world tour?’
‘Yes,’ said Rhedyn, ‘I did promise.’
Since she said nothing more Kulina began to talk. He talked and talked, of all the possibilities that could be encompassed in a tour of the world lasting a whole year. He talked of the beauty of Africa, now a rich and prosperous continent. Many of the species of wild animal that had come close to extinction were re-establishing themselves. He talked of the great cities of Latin America, models of town-planning and social harmony. He talked of New York, now a garden city of 1.5 million inhabitants, with a few of the old skyscrapers preserved as relics.
When Rhedyn said nothing he went on speaking of the social developments around the world. Of how native American communities were being restored in North America, making the bridge between primitive communism and modern communism. Of how the Vietnamese were still working to reconstruct their country, ravaged by so many decades of war.
Then he went on to talk of the debate now raging among Chinese historians about the nature of the Mao Tse-tung period. Some argued forcibly that it had been a remarkable anticipation of the socialist transition, unfortunately interrupted all too soon. Others claimed with equal passion that it had been a wild, voluntarist response to economic backwardness, and had nothing in common with later developments.
‘What’s more,’ he said, ‘it will be fascinating to study the different constitutions in different countries. There are some big variations. A lot of societies demand a very high degree of unanimity before major decisions are made. If we’d lived in Uruguay or Bengal, then the majority we got on the budget debate wouldn’t have been enough. The debate would have had to go on. But I think every republic I know of has the right to recall.’
Still Rhedyn said nothing, and Kulina continued to talk, pouring out a stream of ideas and questions. How had the specifically British tradition of labourism helped to shape the society of South Anglia? A visit to other societies might help to clarify that point. And he went on to speak about how important internationalism had been for George Cook, even though he had had little opportunity to travel abroad (except involuntarily, during the war).
Kulina had been talking for over ten minutes and Rhedyn had said nothing, simply sitting there looking and listening. Now she stood up, came over to him, put her arm round him and kissed him tenderly on the cheek. ‘Dear Kulina’, she said, ‘I did promise and I will keep my promise. But I want to ask one final favour of you. Give me three days to think about it. I’m still recovering from the strain of the budget debate. Come to my room in the cluster-house at this time in three days and I really will give you an answer.’
* * *
‘You see, ‘ said Rhedyn, ‘there’s a strong argument for saying that I played such a major role in getting the new budget allocated that it would be irresponsible for me to simply walk out straight away. But then there’s an equally strong argument for saying that I’ve dominated the debate for too long, and that I should efface myself and let other people start to take more initiative. So those two really cancel each other out, and that doesn’t get us anywhere.’
She was sitting on the settee with Huelva in her room in the cluster-house, the day after her meeting with Kulina. She was still genuinely undecided about what to do, and wanted someone to talk it over with. Huelva, as her closest friend, was the obvious choice, but of course Huelva had her own very large axe to grind.
‘Surely it will be so exciting at the Museum with the expansion and all the new research programmes that you couldn’t bear to be away,’ she said. ‘And a whole year with Kulina would be very constricting. I like Kulina a lot; but he is awfully possessive.’
That was true, Rhedyn thought. But Huelva was equally possessive. That was the dilemma. Round the world with nothing but the one man, or stay in London with only a woman lover. Most people nowadays were in some vague sense bisexual, but Rhedyn was profoundly bisexual. She needed both forms of sex. To sacrifice one to the other was like tearing herself in half.
Huelva looked at her and fluttered her eyelashes.’And,’ she said, ‘even if we can’t have the enhanced orgasms Pignola’s scientists would have invented for us, there’s no limit to how many standard-size ones we can have.’
* * *
Three days, thought Kulina. How short a time it had seemed when they were working on the George Cook project, but how long it seemed now. He had only a couple of hours teaching to do. He had a lot of time off due to him for the extra hours he’d put in over the summer months, and there was no point starting on a new research project till he’d had Rhedyn’s answer. He didn’t know what he would do if she said no. Go on the world tour alone – but exploration would lose half its savour with no-one else to share it with. Find another partner – but there was no-one else he wanted. Stay in the Museum – and be tantalised by Rhedyn, present but unavailable. Find another job – but no idea inspired him.
One day had gone already. Two remained. He had no capacity for concentration. He tried to read: Balzac, Brecht, Yeats, the intricate historical romances of Kidsdale, the dry sexual comedies of Primolano. He listened to music: Stravinsky, the Temptations, the huge symphonies for four hundred electronic instruments composed collectively by a whole village in Kent. But nothing made any sense to him and he was reduced to pacing up and down his room, continually looking at the time. Thirty-nine hours still to go.
* * *
Kulina, damp with rain, entered Rhedyn’s cluster-house and made his way up to her room. It was the first time had had been there since the day of the earthquake. Rhedyn was sitting in an arm-chair and she waved him into another chair carefully placed at a good distance from hers.
She smiled at him. ‘I promised you an answer and I’ll give you one. I’m fond of you, Kulina, very fond. We’ve been through a lot together. I like working with you, not just because you’re a good historian, but because your mind works in the same way as mine; you sympathise with people in the past in the same way I do. And I like being with you. I enjoyed that fuck the day of the earthquake, and I’d happily repeat the experience if I didn’t think you’d take it as an indication that I was agreeing to be your…what the classical economists called private property.
‘We could have been good friends, Kulina, if you hadn’t started insisting on trying to get me into your slow boat to China, all to yourself alone – have you ever heard that old twentieth century song? Jenny Cook was very fond of it. We still can be friends, but only if you stop trying to possess me. I’m sorry. I know you wanted the world tour a lot, but I feel as if you wanted me to go as a piece of hand-luggage.’
‘You’ve got it all wrong, Rhedyn,’ Kulina pleaded. ‘It wouldn’t be like that at all, I promise. Please reconsider.’
‘I’ve given you an answer, Kulina. I kept my promise. So please accept it and go now.’
‘But Rhedyn,’ he said, still trying to persuade her. He was so wrapped up in his attempt that he didn’t notice the way her teeth were beginning to sink into the flesh at the back of her wrist, a sure sign that she was about to explode with anger. ‘Please let’s talk about it some more. I’m sure I can persuade you if you give me a chance. You see…’
‘Oh for fuck’s sake get off my back!’ she shouted. ‘I’m sick to the teeth of you whining! Is it because you were brought up in a nuke that you’re so bloody immature.’
Kulina crumpled, as shocked and hurt as if she had hit him in the testicles with a walking-stick. It had been a short, sharp outburst and already she felt ashamed.
I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I shouldn’t have said that. It was quite unfair. But please go away now. We’ll talk again. But not, please, never again about the world tour. You’ve had my answer.’
Kulina stood up without saying a word and walked out of the door, down the stairs and out of the cluster-house. It was still pouring with rain but he scarcely noticed it. He made his way on to the strips, not looking where he was going and almost colliding with an old man. The Strip Guard wondered whether to warn him, but Kulina made his way safely on to the fast strip and sat down on a seat. Tears were flooding down his face. He remembered that it was not acceptable for men to cry in public in the twentieth century, though it had been in the eighteenth. Was it acceptable now, he wondered? If it wasn’t, nothing could be done about it.
He heard steps behind him. Someone was running very quickly along the fast strip. If this was one of those old movies, he thought, this would be the point where Rhedyn came running after me to tell me she’d changed her mind. The steps got nearer. He didn’t dare look round. A form drew level with him – and a boy shouted ‘I can run faster than you, Kurgan.’ And from behind came another voice: ‘No you can’t, Asslar. But I’m not going to get nicked by the Strip Guards again.’
There would be no happy ending, he thought. They were historians and history did not have a happy ending. Two tears trickled down the sides of his nose. It was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He realised that, even in an ideal world, not everything can be perfect (which – as the more perceptive readers may have picked up – is at least one of the morals of this story). Kulina went on cursing and hitting his hand on the metal rail in front of him until it hurt.