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Golden

a short story
by Al Robertson

Outside the Museum Tavern; and I know she's inside, fresh from the East, waiting. I don't want to go in. If the whole of the city was one great pub, I could just stand here outside, and stand her up, and leave. Nothing would change.

'You said you'd be there at half past -- I waited for an hour.'

'I was... I was in the bar all night long. I can't believe you didn't see me.'

Being nearby is never enough. You need to be actually present. The door opened. Someone was coming out. A snatch of conversation; 'Of course, the return on investment up there's growing all the time.'

Good to know that there were some worthwhile investments left. I pushed past them, and went inside.

'So, how was Egypt?'

'Oh, just lovely, it's the perfect time of year. I saw Hasem in Cairo, we were shooting at Saqqara again. He was talking about a job out there, he always does.'

I wanted to ask her about the plane journey; she hates flying. I wanted to find out if she'd been back to the Fishawi Café. We'd ended up smoking shisha there on the last night of our holiday. The tables huddled in a busy alleyway, buried deep in the Khan El-Khalili souk. Waiters scuttled between passers-by, tin trays hurtling up and down as they flew over and around heads and shoulders.

Sophie would talk to them in Arabic; she'd been learning it in night school for years. We always got excellent service. We cradled our shisha, protecting the hot coals. Heavy shopping bags bustled by, knocking against us, our rickety table. Mint tea spilled and pooled across it. We didn't really notice until it began to drip over the edge.

Most of all, I remembered the light. White charcoal smoke, winding up from a dozen shishas, condensed it from the air. Improvised streetlamps blazed; inside the café, every surface was dense with melted wax and decaying mirrors. Thick outside walls rose close around us, some hard cream, some a sticky yellow. She leaned in close to me. Her hair, her skin, her smile, were a brilliant luminous gold.

A long time ago.

'How was the flight?'

'Oh -- ok...'

I'd held her hand for most of the outward flight, and for most of the return trip. She didn't like showing fear. Her grip tightened as we took off, and then again as we came in to land.

'I listened to music. There was a film.'

'You enjoyed it?'

'I didn't really get into it.'

I hated the thought of her flying alone.

She'd had to rush off; she had some party or other to go to. She'd promised a friend and she couldn't blow her out. She was always very particular about letting down friends. I didn't join her. I wanted to spend a bit of time just taking things in. Good things happen in the Museum Tavern; it's a lucky place. In 1941, a bomb had crashed through the roof and punched a hole in the floor by the till. It didn't detonate. Nobody had been able to work out why.

I ordered another pint, to celebrate. It was still early, and I had the day's paper to finish reading. I'd kill some time, then head for home. I was part way through the G2 section when someone sat down beside me. I didn't look up. I didn't want to encourage conversation.

'Arne Hudsen'

A pause.

'I couldn't help overhearing you guys just now.'

A rich, deep, American voice -- slow and measured. I kept on reading.

'I think it's great that you guys are giving it another go -- you didn't see her waiting for you. Every time the door went... she'd look up, away, didn't know what to do with herself. She feels for you, son. You've done the right thing.'

I looked up from my paper, ready to shut down the conversation.

He held two tumblers, each full of whisky, catching the light like treacle.

'Son, I hate drinking on my own, too much like my old man. Scotch?'

We talked for a while. I told him a little about Sophie and me; how we'd met, how good it had been for a while, how the arguments had begun, how we'd split up. I glossed over the whole april.com thing. I didn't like talking about it much. I told him about Chris and Carticulate.

'A PR and marketing agency? Well, it's a living. I never look down on a man who makes a living for himself.'

'How about you, then? A lumberjack?'

It was late; I'd had a few; Arne was built like a lumberjack. A red checked shirt stretched over his concrete-firm shoulders, hung against his squat, muscular physique. Neck like a bull's. He was an old man, maybe early 60s, but he still gave an unforced impression of power and confidence. He must have been formidable in his prime.

'A lumberjack? First time anyone said that... No, that's not me.'

'So what do you do, then?'

'Well, I've retired now, thank the Lord, consult to keep ticking over, get back up there when I can, but until eight years ago I had the privilege of living upside full time and working Tranquility moonbase as a senior mine camp commander.'

Next day, I was doing another new business pitch, in Reading. It was a half hour train ride from Paddington; I spent most of the journey thinking about Arne. I'd asked him some questions about the lunar mining camp, about his life in it. He'd answered calmly and in some detail. When I'd finished my drink I said goodbye and went. I think he was a bit surprised that I left so suddenly.

I'd walked down St Martin's Lane to get to the bus stop at Charing Cross station. The vacant moon hung over me. Arne was convinced that you could see the lights of some of the mining settlements from Earth, when they were in darkness. I looked up once; I didn't look up again.

When the 77A bus arrived, I made sure I couldn't see the moon from my seat.

Next day, reaching Reading and the prospect, I went straight into pitch mode. I beamed when I met him in reception; firm handshake, looked him straight in the eye. He took me into his office. There were pictures of children on his desk, so I asked him about his family. I wanted him to remember a genuine connection with me.

Perhaps he was interested; in any case, he listened to me politely enough. He shook my hand at the door and gave me directions to the station.

There was nobody else around. The warehouses and offices around me looked like upside-down shoe boxes. The road between them was barely sketched in. The prospect had told me how to get out of the industrial estate. For a moment, I couldn't remember if he'd said to go left or right. I wondered if this was how Sophie imagined me spending my days.

We'd argued a lot, towards the end. Difficult times; I was out of work, didn't really believe I'd ever find anything again. april.com had crashed in early 2000. At their peak, my stock options had been worth about a million. My first proper job, after years of freelancing, and I'd made it. Sophie had glittered in my company; I thought I'd struck the motherlode. We'd imagined such wonderful futures.

What a dream our life was! I took her to the best restaurants, we'd fly abroad at the drop of a hat. Once, she was working on a three week shoot in the Valley of the Queens. Her first shoot as an Assistant Producer, she'd been building up to it for years. She'd been on the phone to me a lot; it was going terribly, clashes with the director and crew. I turned up on a Friday night, surprised her, and took her down the Nile on a felucca for the weekend. I made her Cleopatra; put it all on the gold card. She'd said that it was payback for all the nights and weekends I'd had to work in London.

When the company went down, there was nothing left. I wasn't even paid for my last couple of months work. I'd had to move in with her. It hadn't lasted for long. I was very angry a lot of the time. I'd wanted her to support me, she refused. We argued, non-stop; split up.

I moved into a shitty one bedroom flat in Wandsworth. Chris Carter called up for the Nth time; he'd tracked me down through mutual acquaintances, the pushy bastard. This time, I didn't fob him off. He wanted me to be his Strategic Development Manager, to develop new marketing strategies for Carticulate and its clients. There was nothing else on offer.

Sophie thought I was building myself up again. I wasn't so sure, but I wasn't going to let her see that. We'd started meeting up again, and things were moving on. She did most of the talking.

Arne was another great talker. 'God, when I think what I had to go through -- I was a test pilot for ten years before anything! And then, von Braun's tests, the fitness, all of it -- they built us up for months. Now -- well, you just go to Salt Lake and you're in orbit like that, then wherever you want. Son, you got it easy -- go for it!'

I'd bump into him every few days, sometimes have a scotch or a couple of pints with him. He wasn't sure if he liked the Museum Tavern; but had said at least it felt like he was really getting away when he went there. I didn't like it when he talked about the moon. He also believed that the Germans had helped set up Israel in the late 30s ('That's why they didn't make a fuss when we poached von Braun -- we were putting far too much money into all that for them to say no'). He didn't seem to know much about the Second World War, either. Apart from that, he was pretty good company.

I'd been moaning about work; Chris was getting me down. He didn't seem to understand what I could do for him.

'Lex, I'll level with you. I don't know why you're still here. You could be in the industry, running a portal; bright guy like you, they'd love you topside. You could be running trades on the minesites -- lord knows, they need all the help they can get, and they've got money to burn. My god! There's so much up there -- and you'd be making a killing, that's for sure.'

Arne was convinced. He'd planned a future for me. I'd dump Carticulate, use my dotcom experience to get into space. Once there, I'd achieve my potential, make my fortune, and that would be it. I let him talk for a bit, and then I changed the subject. I knew there was no topside; but, if nothing else, his optimism was infectious.

Talking to Arne always cheered me up; he was much more together than you'd have thought. He told me a lot about his family. He was over in London visiting his daughter, who'd just had her first baby. He'd come over with his wife to help out, for a month or two. Every so often, it all got a bit much for him, so he'd pop out for a walk and a drink. Back then, I was surprised that they trusted him to look after himself; I never saw any of them with him.

I didn't spend too long with him, that night. I had an early start the next day, going to Bath for another pitch. I didn't fancy waiting for a bus, so I got the tube south from Tottenham Court Road.

The carriage was quite full. I couldn't get a seat, so I stood by the door. I was thinking about Carticulate; Arne had inspired me. If I wasn't happy there, it wasn't necessarily a problem. I could change it.

Two men were talking behind me. I was half listening to the conversation. Their investment chat mixed in with my thoughts about Chris. I heard them mention mining. One of them seemed to be talking about the Moon, and then Mars.

The train was juddering into Leicester Square station. I stumbled as I began to turn round, knocked into someone. By the time I'd apologised, we were in the station. The men I'd overheard had got out. There were several people walking down the platform, towards the exit. I couldn't tell which ones they were. The doors closed again, and we moved on.

I got back from Bath, and went straight to meet Sophie. We were still getting used to being together again. She'd badger me to tell her what I was up to at Carticulate. I'd give her the positive version.

She was waiting at the NFT Bar, nursing a glass of white wine. Outside, the booksellers were just packing up for the day. She'd said she had some exciting news, but she seemed quite down. I told her about Bath, that it had gone well.

'Lex, look -- I talked to Hasem today.'

'Great -- how is he?'

'He's fine -- but he's offered me a job -- he wants me to go to Cairo full time, be a liaison for crews over there, develop some ideas with him.'

'Oh.'

'Lex, this is what I've always dreamed of.'

'I know.'

'You're going to take it?'

In Bath, I'd thought I'd seen a billboard advertising holidays in space. I was in a cab, heading for the prospect; we were moving too fast for me to read it properly. On the way back to the station, the cabbie had taken me down the same road. Looking up, I could only see pictures of some sort of soap.

Next day, I sat down with Chris for our weekly sales update. There wasn't much to report. I was cold calling people from his contact database. Most of them were polite but uninterested. Some promised to keep our details. Hardly any wanted to meet and talk.

'What do you mean, you want me to keep calling these losers? We should be in new markets! This is the wrong time to talk to these guys. Technology's crashed; no-one's spending. We need to be moving into new sectors, we need to be somewhere booming.'

Chris hated me telling him how to run his business, but I was right about this, so I pushed.

'OK, Lex, if you feel that strongly about it -- look into it, do me a report or something, but I don't want it getting in the way of new business, it's not really what I took you on for.'

I bit my tongue; I'd got what I wanted.

'To be honest, Lex, I'm a bit disappointed with things. Do what you want; but make sure you get some more leads, that's important, that's what you're here for.'

The next time I saw Arne, he was a bit less cheerful than normal. I asked him if he was ok; he said yes; I left it at that. I steered the conversation towards his days in space. He loved talking about his past; I thought it might cheer him up. I was also very curious. I wanted to know more about his world. It sounded so exciting.

'Remember my first time topside, it was '71. One of six missions; climbed out of the lander, stood there, looked up at the Earth. My God! All that time on another planet. Sure, there were experiments, all that, but hell -- they were make time things. Important thing -- we were there, we could get there. We were living dreams, back then.'

'Went up another two, three times in the early 70s -- budgets low while they put money into Vietnam, reparations, proper democracy now. Spent a lot of time going round schools, bright eyed kids -- I'd always take quarters with me, ones I'd taken to the moon. Hand 'em out as prizes to the smart ones, the ones with the stars in their eyes.'

I let him talk on. By the mid-90s, the moon was pretty much commercialised, he was consulting for some of the bigger private mining firms, living more and more off share income. He'd struck gold, got in at the start with some of the biggest names out there; now, he never needed to work again.

Arne's life reminded me of the future I'd shared with Sophie -- only work when I wanted to, consulting internationally, follow her round the world, let her track me as I went off exploring. We were going to spend months in Egypt -- going down the Nile, living in Cairo, she'd make films, I'd write a book, read, whatever.

Arne's conviction was absolute. He had walked in space, and had worked professionally on the moon for five years or more. He showed me the vacuum blossoms on his gut, where his suit had been penetrated by a micro-meteorite, nearly sucking him into the void; he showed me a tiny slab of moonrock that he'd had made into a keyring. He even talked about how much money Carticulate could make if it picked up a few industry contracts.

They called last orders at the bar. Hardly any time seemed to have passed. Arne stopped me as I stood up to get the last round in.

'Son, there's something I'm going to say to you, I'll say it once, and that'll be it.'

He was looking at me intently.

'When I come here, it's different. I look round, people aren't happy, the stars don't shine bright enough. I KNOW, I've spent my life watching 'em. This isn't a good place for a young man to be, son, you've got to get while the going's good and move. You don't want to waste your life in shitty places like this.'

On my way home, something caught my eye -- the cover of a magazine in the newsagent's window. It was that week's edition of Time. It showed two men in bulky pressure suits standing in a bleak, red tinged landscape. The suits' visors were mirrored; you couldn't see their faces. They reflected a camera, some buildings, distant red mountains. One of them was hefting a pick axe, the other was holding a briefcase. A headline ran beneath them. It read 'Mars - open for business'.

'You seem very bouncy.'

Sophie was very good at picking up my moods.

'You're almost manic. What's got into you?'

I had a new world inside me. The newsagent had denied all knowledge of that edition of Time when I went back; I hadn't been able to find it anywhere else. That wasn't important. I'd seen it, had stood staring at it, hands pressed against the cold glass, reading that single, simple sentence, over and over again. It had been real. A world of miracles had started to blossom.

'Oh, I just want to take advantage of you while you're still here, I don't want to waste a second. Come on!'

A Sunday afternoon on Clapham Common; the air fresh with the first rush of spring. Everything seemed to be possible. Sophie was glowing again; overjoyed by the job, overjoyed to be with me. We took off across the Common running, thrilled. Everything was fantastic.

On our way up Clapham High Street, we'd stopped at a pine furniture shop. Sophie was looking for a new bed; she was going to rent her flat out while she was abroad, and needed to turn her study into a second bedroom. I'd pottered round in the background while she haggled with the owner.

Pine furniture shops smell so distinctive; that sweet scent, oozing from everything. I ran my hand along the end of a bed, the side of a cupboard. The wood was sticky, rich with sap. The afternoon sun gilded it, dancing on luminous surfaces. It warmed me as Sophie turned towards me, her face alive with joy as she prepared for her move to the South.

On the Common, she fell into my arms. I felt the heavy, perfect weight of her as she pulled me over too, dense as an ingot, dragging down my heart. We rolled in the grass and I kissed her, her small mouth fiery and hot to the tongue. I felt my stubble rasp across her pale skin, igniting it. Her hair was a golden blaze around her head; her blue eyes burned like the sky, where it flew closest to the sun.

'My God I could love you so much.'

Some kind of heaven.

I didn't spend the whole night with her; I had an early start. I was going to Slough to talk to some clients about rebranding their travel booking system. I hadn't really prepared much for the meeting, but I was on such a high that I didn't really care. I decided to walk home.

The Common opened itself up to receive me, then enfolded me in soft darkness. I passed the bandstand, kept on walking down the fur-grey path. A cloud shifted; suddenly, everything around me was buttered with moonlight.

To my left, black trees in pubic clumps, thick and knotted. A friend went cottaging in there, from time to time. A government minister had been caught out round here; chasing fantasies into the headlines. He'd fallen. I think he now held obscure political office in Wales.

The path leads straight to the road; you come out of the darkness, into the sodium gash of pavement light. A zebra crossing; a bus is coming. I wait, let it shudder past. Look up at the top deck, then, as it breaks out of cloud, at the moon.

It's a half moon; one side soft cream, the other rich with shadow. Light stipples the velvet dark, thick white pricks rained across the black. I recognise the shimmering patterns that Arne has so carefully described; the Silent Fist, the Smiling Cat, the Nickel and Dime, the Others.

New constellations have landed on the moon; all of Arne's moon camps are there. Everything's changed, for good. I'd followed Arne away from the Museum Tavern, away from the dead roads of Holborn and the darkness of that other, hopeless London. I'd taken his advice; I'd got out. Now, I stood beneath a moon spattered with mines, a moon that was pumping the Earth full of wealth. I could rebuild myself on my share of that wealth. I'd broken through, and I would see that breakthrough infect my job, my life, my world.

I never saw Arne again.

He'd told me that he'd had enough of Holborn, and wanted to start meeting somewhere else -- somewhere a little closer to his daughter's place. It was on the other side of the Thames, in Southwark. The pub was called the Queen of Hearts.

I still remember the excitement of that journey. I decided to walk. I had an hour or so to kill, and I needed the exercise. I went south to the Thames, and then crossed over to the South Bank. It was a cloudy night. I couldn't see the moon, but I was confident that the new lights spilled across it would still be shining. The world around me was immanent with the golden age of space, with its newly fertile presence.

I couldn't find the Queen of Hearts. The street was narrow, red terraced houses cramped hard against each other, squashed shoulder to shoulder. The pub should have been halfway down. Instead, there was a small, modern block of flats, all grey concrete and dull, flat planes. I stopped a couple of people and asked them for directions, but nobody could help.

Sophie moved to Egypt soon afterwards. I went to the airport with her to say goodbye. I watched the plane lift off into the bright open sky from the car park. For once, she hadn't been nervous of flying. She was too excited. I think Chris had sacked me, by then.

I'd felt Arne's disappearance as a personal failure. Perhaps I had written the address of the pub down wrong. One day, I broke off from writing my report and went onto the Internet. I spent hours trying to track it down. There had once been a Queen of Hearts in Bear Lane. It had been bombed flat during the Blitz.

I am still researching my report. I know that, if I write it well enough, it will reopen the doors that have been closed to me. I've mapped out the economic benefits of investing in the new space operations in some detail. I've explored their workings; the minimum workforce necessary to support profitable mining operations, the need for a magnetic rail gun to shoot processed ore from the lunar surface back to earth, and so on.

Working with the new materials from space, and the new industries needed to service the men mining those materials, we can create a new business paradigm that will revolutionise the economic world. All will be set in a cycle of perpetual profit. New markets will fuel constant economic growth. We shall live effortlessly in a new golden age, greater than any that's been seen before.

I am paying my rent with a new credit card. It will be good for another few months. I live frugally. I believe in the world I am looking for. When I am not writing I walk the streets of London, searching for it. I am committed and determined in my search, for I know it can be found. The moon will light up for me, again; I shall count the returning shuttles as they drop like coins from the sky.

I have made a list of the sites of other pubs that were destroyed in World War II. In that other world, I believe that they survived. I go to them, one by one. Searching for Arne revealed nothing. A young test pilot with the same name had been killed in a car crash in the late 50s. There was nothing else.

Sophie sent me a letter the other day. She told me how exciting life was in Cairo, how happy she was to be out there. Hasem is a well connected man; she's mixing with the highest levels of Egyptian society. She recently appeared in the pages of their version of Hello. The woman behind the counter at her grocers had recognised her, and been very impressed. Sophie was overjoyed. I spoke to my mother a few weeks ago; she said she'd heard from her, as well.

I have not told her that I am no longer working for Carticulate. She thinks that I am spearheading an expansion into new business areas. I am not lying to her. When I find that other world again, I shall be a wealthy man. I cannot afford to visit her now. I tell her I am too busy. She understands, and doesn't pressure me.

There are roads on my list that I've not yet been to; one by one, I'm visiting them all. One day, I shall turn into one and find, in place of a drab fifties housing block or a grey, concrete shopping precinct, an old London pub bustling with life and energy. I shall walk into it, and Arne will be sitting at the bar, waiting for me. We will talk again about the future, and the past; and both will be glowing with promise and reward.

Before she left, Sophie took me to Hampton Court Palace. She said she wanted to take me away from it all for an afternoon. I'd told her a little about Arne, but not the full story. Perhaps I'd been wrong not to do so. I'd been drawn into his world by his stories. Maybe they would act as a door for her, as well. I tried to tell her about his life on the moon, but she changed the subject.

Later that afternoon, I caught her looking at me in a peculiar way, somewhere between appraisal and concern. I could understand how she was feeling. We were exploring the maze together. So many narrow green pathways, all confusingly the same. It was so easy to take the wrong turning, so difficult to know which was right. In the end, she let me lead. I'd told her I knew my way around.

We suddenly stumbled on the central area. I'd seen a film, several years ago, in which the hero and heroine had had a picnic there. There had been a small garden; regularly planted trees; rich flower beds at the feet of the hedges, enclosing an elegant central lawn. It was a little piece of paradise.

When we arrived, there was only an empty, muddy quadrangle.

I said, 'I told you I knew where it was.'

Two sickly trees leant against each other like stubbed out cigarettes. The sky was heavy and cold above the drab green hedges. The blank white moon had appeared, foreshadowing darkness. I stood alone with Sophie at the maze's cold heart, wondering how I'd managed to find it. For a moment I even wanted to tell her that I didn't know how to get out.


© Al Robertson 2007.
This story was first published in The Third Alternative #38 (2004).

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