The vigorous propaganda campaign by both Historians and Hedonists had certainly ensured that the issues were discussed. Almost all the local assemblies had debated the two proposals, and in most cases had taken a vote.
One lunchtime early in July Rhedyn came into the Museum canteen where Huelva and Kulina were already sitting at a table. Several of the other members of the George Cook research team had gone away on holiday, but the three of them had agreed to postpone their holidays in order to finish the video-book by September; all of them were working well over the standard twenty hours per week.
Rhedyn collected her food from the dispensers and sat down with her friends. She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. ‘The final score,’ she said. ‘Every local assembly has now had its second budget meeting, and most of them have voted on whether to support us or the Hedonists. Of those that have taken a clear decision, eighty are backing us, and seventy-eight backing Pignola. That leaves forty that are undecided. Of course the delegates aren’t mandated, but I think we can assume that in most cases they will follow the wishes of the assemblies. So it’s still open, wide open.’
‘What can do to swing it?’ asked Kulina.
‘I don’t know that we can do anything. But I’ll tell you who can swing it. Chilgrove. Bloody Chilgrove.’ She smashed her fist into the table so hard that several people turned round to look.
‘She has two very strong assets. Firstly, she’s a very effective demagogue. She can certainly sway people who haven’t made up their minds. And secondly, she represents the local assembly from which both our proposal and Pignola’s originated. For either of the proposals to be repudiated by its own local delegate would certainly weaken its case considerably. After all, if the home area of the Museum didn’t support us, why should anywhere else?’
‘So it’s a good job she’s on our side,’ said Huelva.
‘But is she?’ asked Rhedyn. Is she? I know it’s boring but I’m still suspicious. I’ll tell you something. I’m implacably opposed to all that Pignola stands for. I think he’s pointing a wrong direction for the whole future of our society. But I respect him as an opponent. Chilgrove I hate and despise.’
Huelva excused herself, saying she had students to meet. Kulina leaned over the table to Rhedyn. ‘Listen. There’s something I have to talk to you about. Something to do with the budget. But it’s totally confidential. We can’t discuss it here. Can we meet somewhere? Just the two of us.’
‘Of course,’ said Rhedyn, suspicious of another strategy for chatting her up about the world tour, but unwilling to miss any chance of finding out information that could help with the budget debate. ‘Shall we go to an artisan restaurant?’
‘No,’ said Kulina, ‘that isn’t private enough. On Thursday, the day after tomorrow, I haven’t any teaching and I’m not coming in to the Museum. I need a day off and the schedule isn’t so tight I can’t take one. I’m going out to see a medieval church the far side of Waltham Cross, out in the country. You need a day off too. Why don’t we go out there together, and we can discuss things in peace and quiet.’
‘I don’t want to take a whole day off,’ said Rhedyn, ‘but I’ll meet you out there after lunch, say about two thirty. I’ve heard of the church you mean, though I’ve never been there.’
‘Fine,’ said Kulina, ‘I’ll probably go earlier and have a look at the church. I like medieval things. If I decide to stay a historian I may switch to the Middle Ages. Some of those popular revolts are really thrilling.’
As they walked back together to the research room, Rhedyn asked Kulina how his work was getting on.
‘Pretty well,’ he replied,’I’m working on the letters now.’
‘They’re mostly typed after the early sixties, aren’t they?’
‘Yes, George learned to type when he thought he might get elected to the Borough Council. And he always kept carbon copies of what he wrote, in case there was any dispute. That makes life a lot easier for us.’
‘And is George making more sense to you?’ asked Rhedyn.
‘In some ways, yes. But there are some things I can’t get my head round. I know I was brought up in a nuke, but I can’t come to terms with the way he treated Rachel. The letter she wrote when she left was absolutely right.’
‘I found that hard for a long time, too,’ said Rhedyn, ‘but we have to understand the past, not pass moral judgments on it. We don’t moralise with the ancient Greeks for keeping slaves, so we shouldn’t moralise with the twentieth century for the way women were treated.’
‘But there are such contradictions. There’s that passage in his diary about how Rachel had got ugly and boring, and yet it’s so obvious that it was the domestic role he imposed on her that made her like that.’
‘But you have to remember that most women of that generation accepted that role, saw it as their natural position in life. That was how oppression used to work. Oppressed groups usually did accept their oppression as justified. That meant that when they stopped accepting it, they had the power to liberate themselves.’
* * *
Rhedyn had come in to the Museum early on Thursday so as to get a full morning’s work done before going to meet Kulina. She was preparing the chapter of the video-book that dealt with George’s involvement in the Nuclear Disarmament movement of the early sixties. The raw data had all been dug out; the problem was to integrate it into a meaningful whole. For the material seemed to exist on so many distinct and apparently unconnected levels. There was the anecdotic trivia of the Aldermaston marches: George’s blisters, the children’s constant thirst, Rachel’s annoyance at having to spend an entire tea-stop queuing for a portable toilet. Then there was the effect on the dynamics of the family. This was the only political campaign in which Rachel had really been involved between 1946 and 1968. But it was also the first time the Cooks had tried to involve their children in a political campaign; they had been tired, bored and resentful. Beyond that she had to look at the impact of CND on the political scene; its effect on the Labour left and the way it drew a whole new generation into politics. And that in turn had to be put in the context of the insane logic of the arms race. Rhedyn had gathered some samples of the twisted rhetoric used to defend nuclear deterrence – it was all summed up by a cartoon she had found in which a man put a gun to his own head and threatened: ‘If you attack me I’ll shoot’. George and Rachel had participated in the demonstrations during the Cuba crisis in October 1962. If Kennedy or Kruschev had slipped up in their crazy game of chicken, thought Rhedyn, then there would have been no more history, no more historians. From blisters on the toe to the obliteration of humanity; how could they be integrated into one totality?
A pile of books and papers at the end of Rhedyn’s desk toppled and slid to the floor. Calling herself a silly shit-eating lumbering fool for not stacking them properly, she bent to pick them up. The floor seemed to tilt beneath her and she ended up flat on her back with her chair on top of her. Her brain seemed to be slopping about inside her head like water in a jar that was being violently shaken. She heard a huge crash in the corridor outside. Then everything was still again. The whole thing had lasted no longer than an orgasm.
Alarm bells started to ring and there was a distant sound of someone screaming. Rhedyn picked herself up and tried to work out what was going on. Was it a bomb? There were said to be still unexploded bombs left over from the blitz of the 1940s. Or even a nuclear device, hidden away by terrorists and never discovered? If she hadn’t known better Rhedyn would have thought it was an earthquake. But that was impossible; in the last fifty years seismology had become an exact predictive science. Earthquakes were foreseen with the same precision as eclipses, and appropriate precautions taken.
Rhedyn went to the window, seeking some explanation. A few buildings seemed slightly damaged, and ambulance helicopters were already beginning to descend like vultures. She opened the door into the corridor. A large metal cupboard used to store the telephone tapes that were being currently worked on had fallen over. And in falling over it had hit someone, for a prostrate form lay beside it. It was Richmond, blood oozing from his skull. He must have been right outside the door when it happened. Was he coming to see her, to tell her something? Would she ever know? Anxiously she knelt beside him and with relief discovered that he was still breathing and that his heart-beat was regular.
She called out for help. Old Squeaky appeared, and together they slid Richmond on to a stretcher and took him to the nearest outside door. Rhedyn used the controls of a telescreen to summon an ambulance. Within three minutes Richmond was aboard a helicopter.
Rhedyn went back to the telescreen, still trying to discover what was going on. All normal transmissions had been interrupted and a voice was repeating the same message over and over: ‘There has been a small earthquake. Do not panic. It is now over and further tremors are unlikely. The damage is limited. The epicentre of the earthquake was in the Waltham Cross area. No damage had been done to the tidal power stations, so only local interruptions to power supplies should be expected. There is some damage to the strips, and for the time being all strips in the North London area have been shut down. Please do not attempt to travel. All Strip Guards and health centre workers not on duty at the present time are asked to report to their workplaces immediately.’ The Central Computer which was supposed to coordinate information in the event of accidents and disruption was clearly in working order.
Rhedyn began to look round the Museum. Some of the displays had been damaged but there didn’t seem to be any other serious injuries. She found Huelva helping to tidy up in the Atrocity Gallery and started to lend a hand. Suddenly a thought dug deep into her brain. She had forgotten all about Kulina. She looked at the time. It was twelve fifteen. He had said that he would go out and look at the medieval church in the morning – the church near Waltham Cross, near the epicentre of the earthquake. He might be seriously injured; it was a sparsely populated area and he could lie there for hours, even days, before anyone found him.
Rhedyn began to realise just how fond she was of Kulina. Of course he irritated her sometimes, with his all-too fervent attempts to chat her up and the way he had pestered her about the world tour. And he looked so pathetic when he wasn’t getting what he wanted. But he was a good historian, and he had put a lot of effort into the budget campaign. And anyhow she liked him – liked him very much. And now he might be lying injured, even dead. What could she do? She felt totally powerless. Was it a sense of powerlessness like this that had made people turn to religion in the old days?
Mumbling an excuse to Huelva she ran outside. The strips were still immobilised, and the few people who were about seemed uncertain whether it was permissible to walk on the stationary strips. There were no Strip Guards in sight; presumably they were all busy checking and repairing the mechanisms below the surface. So how was she to get to Waltham Cross? It was a good twelve miles from here, if she walked along the motionless strips. She was healthy enough but she was no athlete; at best it would take her getting on for three hours.
She could scarcely summon an ambulance helicopter on the chance that there might be an injured person when they were doubtless overburdened with casualties. The strips were a wonderful transport system, but if they broke down they created an enormous problem, since there was no alternative. Motor cars had been filthy, disgusting and dangerous, but she would have found one very useful just now. In the old days if something went wrong with the railways, you could always get a bus; and even if the traffic was fouled up in an inextricable jam you could probably make your way through on a bicycle.
A bicycle. Of course. All along the River Lea there was a cycle track. You could pick up a bicycle at any point and cycle all the way up to Waltham Cross.
It took Rhedyn just over half an hour, walking on the immobile strips, to reach the cycle track. She took a bicycle from the nearest store and began to pedal northwards as fast as she could. It was a few years since she had ridden a bicycle, and she felt a little shaky at first, but she soon got into the rhythm of it. It was a bright summer’s day and fish were leaping in the sparkling waters of the Lea. Rhedyn remembered descriptions she had read of the factories that used to border the river and the filth that was poured into it.
Soon she was at Waltham Cross. If this was the epicentre then the earthquake had not been as severe as she had feared. There was little visible damage; in any case there were no tall buildings to have collapsed. Beyond the village she found her way to the church where she had promised to meet Kulina. She had never been there before and so did not know how ruined the church had been before the earthquake.It seemed in a bad way now. There was no sign of Kulina and around the church lay some ominous blocks of stone. A sickening thought seemed to slice through her gut. Could Kulina be lying crushed beneath one of them?
Dead, thought Rhedyn. Dead. Normally death seemed something remote to a person of Rhedyn’s age in a world where few died before eighty, most lived to ninety and centenarians were frequent and active. It had not always been so; many people now had never seen a corpse, whereas once a dead body had been an everyday sight. Cures had been found for killer diseases (George Cook’s father had died of a painful cancer when aged only sixty) and the plague of road accidents had been eliminated (Bill Ellison’s nephew, aged only fifteen, had been struck by a car, lain in a coma for a year, and died).
But now death was real and present. Could Kulina, whom she had talked to, whom she had worked with, whom she liked – liked very much – be dead? Dead, not as the natural rounding of an organic process, but as a brutal interruption. She understood now why highly intelligent people – Arthur Conan Doyle for example – had believed in ghosts or spiritualism. She felt vertigo, as though falling into a bottomless void, at the thought of non-being.
With an effort Rhedyn told herself – told her sagging gut and her spinning brain – that she must not despair. There might be something to be done. Perhaps Kulina had never even got here. Perhaps he was somewhere else in the area. Behind the church was a small hill. If she went to the top of it she would get a better view of the surroundings and might be able to see if there was any sign of life. Slowly, still feeling shaken from the exertion of cycling and the anxiety of searching she plodded up a path that led between bushes. As she did so she seemed to hear a voice calling out – Kulina’s voice. Was she suffering from delusions, she wondered? Could she not trust her senses any more?
The voice spoke again, more clearly, speaking her name. Was it a ghost? She looked into the bushes beside the path and saw a form stretched out on the ground. She ran to it and found Kulina, with open eyes, breathing and talking.
‘What happened?’ she asked. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I was walking up the hill to see the view,’ he said, ‘when the whole earth shook under me. I presume it was an earthquake. I fell over and something happened to my ankle. I couldn’t stand on it. There was nobody around, and I hadn’t brought my wrist-radio, so I couldn’t call for help.’
Rhedyn assisted Kulina to his feet – she was bigger and heftier than he was – and with his arm round her shoulder he managed to hobble to the bottom of the hill. Then she examined his ankle – she had some knowledge of first aid. ‘It’s nothing serious,’ she said, ‘but you won’t be able to walk for a bit.’
So how were they to get back? The strips were still out of action, and there was obviously no question of Kulina cycling.
Fortunately Rhedyn had her wrist-radio. ‘I left mine at home,’ said Kulina, ‘because I wanted an idyllic day in the country, free from modern technology.’ She used the transmitter to call a helicopter, and was told that unless it was a life-or-death matter they would have to wait half an hour, as there was still a heavy demand for ambulances.
They sat side by side on the grass in the bright sunshine. Being seated, Kulina didn’t need to put his arm round Rhedyn to support himself, but he put it there just the same. She made no objection.
‘While we’re here in rustic solitude,’ he said, ‘I might as well tell you the information I arranged to see you about. It’s not very cheerful, I’m afraid.
‘A man who lives in my cluster works in an artisan restaurant. One evening last week Pignola and Chilgrove were in there together. He recognised Pignola from the television, even though he’d changed his hair-style. And the description he gave of the woman couldn’t be anyone other than Chilgrove.
‘He overheard quite a bit of what they were talking about. Apparently they’ve been working together for some time; Chilgrove wrote part of his first leaflet, and they’ve been planning the campaign together. But that’s not the worst. Apparently Chilgrove is just biding her time and then at some point she will find a reason for announcing that she’s gone over to the Hedonists.’
‘The bloody vomit-sack,’ shouted Rhedyn. She sat bolt upright, pulling herself away from Kulina’s arm, but after a moment snuggled back against him.
‘My friend knew I was involved with the Museum, so he told me. But he made me promise not to tell anyone. He knows there are a lot of strong feelings about the debate, and he didn’t want to get mixed up in it.
‘So I said nothing about it. Then the other day, when you pointed out that Chilgrove was in a position to swing the Central Assembly one way or the other, I realised I had to discuss it with you.’
A pretty feeble excuse for all this secrecy, thought Rhedyn. The trip to the country was obviously an end in itself. But she did not resent Kulina’s stratagem. She was more concerned with the news he had just given her.
‘But why did that lump of infected turd pretend she supported me?’ she moaned.
‘I think I’ve worked that out,’ said Kulina. ‘At the beginning she needed to become delegate. She had to have votes from both sides. She got support from our sympathisers by flattering us, and she’d fixed up with Pignola that he wouldn’t run against her. But of course she also covered herself with all that ultra-democratic stuff about mandation. She probably intended to switch sides earlier. But when she saw what a good campaign we were running, she bided her time. If we’d got the majority of votes for the Central Assembly lined up – and we weren’t far short of it – she’d have protected her own position by accepting the will of the majority – and stabbing Pignola in the back. What I don’t understand is what it’s all for. Where does all this manoeuvring and dishonesty get her?’
‘I think I’m beginning to work that out,’ said Rhedyn. ‘She thinks that the sort of people who get elected to assemblies will support us, because they’re the sort who are interested in politics. So they’ll like history because history, she imagines, is all about politics. It’s a muddled sort of argument, but it has a truth to it. The people who take democratic practices most seriously do tend to be the people who are most interested in struggles from the past.
‘On the other hand she thinks that most of the population aren’t like that. It’s a bit like what they used to call the “silent majority”. They just go along to workplace meetings, and then leave it all to someone else. Chilgrove thinks they don’t give a toss about history; all they want is sex and ferris-wheels.
‘Of course, it’s an incredibly elitist argument. Chilgrove believes she’s some sort of superior being, who has elevated capacities and motives. I’m sure she’s absolutely sincere when she says she admires what we’re doing at the Museum. But she thinks that most people have “lower” impulses and aren’t up to that sort of thing.
‘So her view of democracy goes something like this. The vast majority of people know – in a dull, instinctive sort of way – what they want. But they can’t be bothered doing anything about it. And since they’re so brutish it isn’t worth trying to persuade them to want something different. What’s needed is benevolent activists – like Citizen Chilgrove – who will give people what they know they want but won’t make any effort to get for themselves.’
Rhedyn paused and looked upwards, searching the blue skies for any trace of a helicopter.
‘You know,’she mused, ‘what Chilgrove believes is very similar to what used to be called “reformism” in George’s day. It seems terribly democratic – give the people what they want, not what they ought to have. But really it’s elitist – we give it them, but don’t let them take it for themselves.
‘Of course Chilgrove doesn’t get anything out of it – nothing material, though she likes poncing around as a star. It’s still the same old attitude, though. You’d think it would have been rooted out after what’s happened in the last hundred years. But it’s terribly tenacious.’
They fell silent, nestling against each other in the afternoon sunlight. Eventually the helicopter came and Kulina was helped aboard. As they flew back the attendant confirmed Rhedyn’s diagnosis that the injury was not serious. Normally Kulina would have been taken to a health centre, but because of the congestion caused by the earthquake he was advised to go home and rest, and call in for a check-up in a couple of days.
The helicopter put them down at Rhedyn’s cluster-house. ‘Come inside and rest,’ she said. ‘I’ll help you home when the strips are working again – or you can stay the night.’
They went up to Rhedyn’s room. Rhedyn made some warm herb-tea, and they listened to the juke-speaker, as it played one of the works of the Mazaricos cluster, a group of contemporary composer-performers who were combining hip-hop rhythms with the structures of the Gregorian chant.
Then Rhedyn put her arms round Kulina, kissed him and said : ‘Let’s fuck’. As delight and bemusement mingled in his eyes, she said: ‘You’ve been wanting to for a long time, haven’t you? And when I was so worried about you this afternoon I realised I wanted to as well. And it won’t harm your leg – not unless you do it a very funny way.’
There was a collapsible bed in the room, but they simply subsided on to the rich, soft carpet (I wonder if Chilgrove wove this one, thought Kulina). He helped to take off her shirt and she removed his gown. It was a safe joy. There was no fear of unwanted pregnancy; some time in the next twelve hours Rhedyn would swallow a small, safe pill with no side-effects. There was no risk of disease, no malignancy that would destroy their noses and make black rotting holes in their cheeks, or smash their bodies’ defensive systems to leave them wasting away and dying with diarrhoea and vomiting.
No such thoughts crossed their minds, even though they were historians. As their bodies entwined and enfolded, they forgot the budget, forgot the earthquake, forgot the past to live in a simple, eternal present. The tradition of all the dead generations lifted its weight from their brains as they tasted delight.
They moved slowly together, savouring every moment. But when the brief seconds of ecstasy came and went, Kulina felt sad; it was over, and he dared not hope it would happen again. This, he thought, was the best thing in life. Maybe, after all, Pignola was right…
* * *
…Maybe, thought Rhedyn, Pignola is right. The procession, many thousands strong, moved slowly down the strips which had been stopped as a mark of respect. It was a funeral march for those who had died in the earthquake: thirteen in all, and among them Richmond. To die young was something rare and shocking, and the workplaces where the victims had come from had taken the initiative in marking the tragedy with a solemn public ceremony.
Rhedyn, her eyes misted with tears, had caught sight of Pignola, for once clad in at least relatively subdued garments. As she looked at him, she imagined that he was gloating, thinking that it would have been better if Richmond had devoted his short span to enjoyment instead of living in the past. (Pignola, who was a humane and sensitive man, was in fact thinking no such thing.) Was he right, she wondered? Who could say? But then she thought of the joy with which Richmond had pursued his knowledge and understanding of the past, and she knew he had made the best possible use of his brief life.
Kulina’s ankle had recovered sufficiently for him to march, and he was limping along beside Rhedyn. Together they shared a load of grief – and of guilt. For it had been at the very moment when they were making love that Richmond had died in the health centre, after three operations, and without ever regaining consciousness.