infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror fiction
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z
 Headlong
an extract from the novel
by Simon Ings

"This wistful novel is a terrific example of the genre. Simon Ings has a serious career ahead of him." -- The Guardian, January 1999

Foreword

Headlong by Simon Ings; published February 1999 by HarperCollins Voyager

Now I know it looks mad, but I'm part of a long and honourable tradition here. I mean, even the late great Alfred Bester edited Holiday magazine.

Okay, time to come out with it, I'm a freelance sub-editor for Vogue.

And House & Garden.

Oh yes, and World of Interiors...

With Headlong I really did try to write a straight urban sf novel set in a future London, honest, but whatever I did all the women ended up in Voyage dresses, and my architect hero knows far more than is really healthy about interior design (come next century, impasto di gesso is the flooring for your lunar villa -- plaster and marble dust, you know…).

Then again, why should all the characters in sf books be street-hardened orphans? Headlong, too, has its fair share of wetware pirates and police spies and bogus physicians. But even having cameras for eyes needn't stop you having opinions about what your friends wear, what they cook, and what they put on their walls.

I wanted to write a novel with real people in it. Looking cool is only part of it -- people have to do things. That way, when they have their big dramatic moments -- when they grieve, or fall in love; lose or regain hope -- you can believe them.

So Headlong turned into a crime novel -- fairly gritty, rather glamorous -- set in the future. The hero's wife is dead: did she jump, or was she pushed? Naturally, this being sf, there's a third solution -- and, naturally, me being me, I'm not about to give it away here!

Headlong

- 1 -

No-one knew where George Ballantyne kept his secret clinic. I only ever went there in the throes of EAI delirium, strapped into a canvas stretcher in the back of an unmarked ambulance. The windows were frosted, and the shadows that flicked past were indistinct. I couldn't tell treetops from rooftops.

And once I arrived at the clinic, they injected me with ResponsIV; that stuff kicked me so far into never-never land, I found it hard enough to remember my own name. That is why my memories of the clinic and its staff are so fragmented. The sound of the sea on a pebble bank. Aeroplanes landing. A child's balloon floating past the window. A cloudy night's sky, lit up sodium-orange by streetlights. Nurses in long red gowns. Doctors with cameras for eyes. Nonsense.

My self would sew itself back together eventually; but by then I'd been moved elsewhere. The clinic rented safe-houses from country-living magazines and tourist-board lists. They picked lonely railwayman's cottages, miles away from anywhere, in regions rarely visited by the police, their scopes and their scanners.

Waking from the treatments, I was blind for a while, as helpless as a puppy. When my sight did finally return, I found myself looking at the world as through a dirty windscreen.

Late one October, two years into my treatments, I opened my eyes on a place I'd not seen before.

Grey felt-like curtains framed a mottled grey space which I guessed was a window. Slowly my eyes adjusted to the light in the room. A shapeless fawn sofa sat near the window. Boils of whitish foam had burst from splits along its back and arms. A folding-leaf dining table stood near the door. It was spindly, and the veneer was splintered, as though something had been chewing on it.

The clinic had surpassed itself this time. Nauseated, I turned away. My head felt huge and hollow like a Halloween pumpkin.

'Ballantyne?'

'Peckham Motors, Janny speaking.' It was the clinic's favourite cover.

'I want to speak to George Ballantyne.'

'Who's calling?'

'Christopher Yale.'

'Christopher!'

'I'm calling with urgent medical information.'

'We met last Thursday, remember?'

'No. I was in treatment. You're mistaken.'

'Costa's, in Portobello. Hilda was there.'

'There have been side-effects.'

'When is your appointment?'

'He'll want to know.'

'There's a free space next Wednesday afternoon.'

'My teeth are loosening.'

'We should get together again soon.'

'There's a sucking sound in my ears.'

'Will you speak to Hilda or shall I?'

'I don't even know what I look like.'

'Have you tried a mirror?'

'It doesn't help.'

'I'll pencil you in, then.'

I wasn't bed-ridden, but the recent illness had sucked the colour out of everything. I felt greasy and delicate, like a shed skin.

I dreamed a lot, and it was hard for me sometimes to know when I was awake and when I was asleep. One night, I remember I shrank back to a child again, and returned to my birthplace: a suburban enclosure south of Toronto. I was sitting by a child-proof stream. Spring sunlight broke gently on the chlorinated, fluoridated, iodized water. The light played across my face, filtered by the foliage of climb-resistent trees. I looked around me, looking for bearings in these ersatz woods. Every few yards or so there were red signs nailed to the tree trunks:

WARNING: Pebbles Can Choke Small Children

CCTV cameras watched me from the tallest branches, their lenses concealed behind bright, comforting shapes, plastic clowns' heads and animal masks.

The light faded, leaching the poster-colours from the masks. Their avuncular smiles became sinister. At dusk, they resembled the gap-toothed lantern ghosts of a Japanese fairy tale. In the silence of the night, the cameras set deep in their gaping mouths whined like gagged men. The branches weaved in the night like skeleton fingers. In autumn, swarms of dead leaves blew by the houses bordering the wood, triggering porch lights. They flooded the wood with a cruel glare like the searchlights of an advancing enemy.

I ran from them, hurtled through the dark, and came to the perimeter road. Bark chips covered the compacted earth to discourage weeds. On the far side, through the chainlink, I saw the campfires of the poor. They threaded the starry night sky with columns of smoke, solid as rags. A long way away, someone strummed a guitar.

A patrolman's jeep rounded the corner. Its tyres made a popping sound against the bark chips. The light from its door-mounted searchlight flashed on. It whited out the hill-side, the encampments and the stars. The bright, plasticated chainlink under my hands fluoresced. The jeep stopped. The idling engine sounded like an old man in the middle of a coughing fit. A safe male hand closed over my shoulder. 'Come on home, master Yale,' he said, in the curious, characterless falsetto typical of castrati. 'Mrs Yale is worrying about you.'

With a shout, I was free. Like the looking-glass Alice I grew, eyeblink-fast, into my mid-twenties. Free of enclosures, free of Toronto and my parents, I looked about me, screwing my eyes up against the glare of the snow.

Above me loomed the broken mouth of Kokanee Glacier. Melt-water gushed over rocks the size of cars. Below me, the tree-line was dark and threadbare. The rock was exposed in places, mottled with lichen and red moss. An elk and two young were stumbling myopically down into the valley, towards the log cabins where I lived and studied. My mentor, the architect and designer Louie Huichang, had chosen a truly inpirational location for his school. The locals-the nearest, an ex-convict, lived thirty miles away-thought we were all completely mad.

It was here, among the spruce and the elk, that I learned how to draw and to build.

And how to love.

'Pull the blanket up, Chris.'

'No, please, Sunshine, let me see.' The bed lay under the window. Her shoulders flexed in the starlight coming through the dirty glass. Her black hair shone in the glow from the open wood-stove.

The generator had packed in again. Smoke tickled my throat. The air was dry; I could hear the click in her throat when she swallowed.

'Christ's sakes make me come, love, I'm freezing.'

So I did. She bent over me and tightened her legs around mine. Her nipples were stiff with the cold. They felt like pebbles under my hand.

'Pebbles choke small children,' I said, breaking the dream into heartbreaking fragments. Ellen, who got an abortion, and a few months later flew to Brisbane; got married, built bridges, became famous, and led a good life; who still wrote me sometimes--

--Best of everything yourself, Sunshine, I thought, sliding Ellen's latest postcard into the drawer.

The lights were off in the Sea of Serenity apartment. Earthlight flooded the pristine window-glass, turning everything in the room a cool marine blue. I looked at my watch. My wife would be home soon. I looked out the window, searching for the dust trail from her buggy. But the lunar sky was clear as indian ink.

Perhaps, I thought, I have time to make her something. A present. A surprise.

A palace, I decided: a palace for my love.

In this dream, my head was still chock-full of Apolloco's accessories. The draughting tools, the rendering wetware, the neural cache. Silently, I recited the mnemonic to transport me to my virtual office. There was a tearing sound. Bright spots of grainy colour sandpapered my eyeballs. The next I knew I was hovering disembodied over a grey, gridded landscape. A mathematically smooth plain of dark grey clay receded evenly and endlessly whichever way I looked. The sky was an ungraduated light grey. There was no sun.

I smiled (though I had no mouth) to be back at the drawing-board: to be working again.

I wondered what to make. Something simple to start with, I thought. A palace. I pointed with my mind: Let there be stuff.

Beneath me, the dark grey clay curled and folded in on itself, making foundations for my palace. The trenches filled with fine white stone, soft as putty. Trees of iron, delicate as fern, sprouted from the soft stone.

With a flourish, I summoned up a river and sent it plunging through the building's skeleton. The river fluxed and beat against the iron underbrush. The twiggy mesh gave under the water's weight, thickening and exuding tar; then it set, forming a watercourse of black marble.

Elsewhere the iron trees grew thick and white, gummed with a stony mould. The stone stretched toffee-like from branch to branch. It swelled and popped like boiling mud and hardened into walls, pilasters, embrasures, here and there an ogive window, balconies, dressed stone and decorations-

With a hundred super-sensitive fingers I pruned my creation, snipping back the metal growths the stone had not covered. I balanced windows and doors and stairways, making of the wild architectural growth a thing of balanced lines. Marble I rendered solid black or white. Water, I made pencil grey. Floors were charcoal-coloured wood. I summoned up no colours. Colour would only distract me. Right now I cared only for light: the impossibly pure light of an architect's dreams.

The river plunged and twisted through the palace, making the views from every window and courtyard and balcony spectacular. Brightness scoured the palace's many atriums. I smiled, seeing how the receiving marble splashed dove-grey light down the most remote corridors.

Satisfied with my creation, I slept.

When I woke, the palace had evaporated. There was no sign of it.

The ideal light of my dream was drowning bloodily beneath a frayed horizon. The plain itself was shrivelling like burning paper. I floundered, caught up in the conflagration, and felt myself carried like chaff along a river of sour dreams.

Every day at noon I heard a car drive up outside the house. Below me, the front door banged open. Ten minutes later a thin Asiatic girl in a print dress entered the room. She plumped up my pillows, and fed me thin Campbell's soup and white bread. I didn't know who she was or who she answered to. Sometimes there were tear-tracks down her face. She moved with stiff, bent precision.

There were times her sadness touched me strangely. Every one of her gestures expressed submission. When she walked, it was with a martyred pride, as though she were submitting herself to difficult principles.

At other times, her silent misery aroused my resentment: I never asked her where she came from, and she never offered to tell me.

Once, as she was leaving, I screwed up my courage and asked her where I was.

'Long Lover,' she said.

'Long what?'

'It's what it says on the map.'

The improbable place-name disorientated me still further.

I kept forgetting how I'd got here, and what I was here for. I kept waking up in the middle of the night, sweating with fear. Then I'd call George Ballantyne's office. His secretary kept mistaking me for somebody else, some friend of a friend. 'I don't know any Hilda,' I kept saying. It never made any difference.

One day, without warning, the girl stopped coming. I missed her face, her mouth drawn down in lines of severe beauty, the arch of her eyebrows. Her face had stuck itself in my mind like an emblem. Absent, her image began to obsess me.

I lay in a sulk the whole day, waiting for her, carefully rationing the water in the jug by my bed.

On the second day, hunger seized me. It was a strange sensation, a raw signal from the gut. It missed my mouth entirely. I wasn't even salivating.

I lay there a while, the still centre of a febrile drugscape, exploring my body. The skin over my stomach bunched under my congested fingers. There was nothing about that loose and unfamiliar sac I recognised.

Slowly I put my feet to the floor and stood up. I felt very tall, my legs as thin as stilts. I stepped forward. The air moved around me. It must have been cold -- I could see my breath -- but the draughts had no more impact on my skin than ripples in a tepid bath.

I crossed the room and opened the door. The hallway beyond seemed as smooth and grey as felt. My brain still wasn't paying proper attention to my sense organs. I was blind to detail. Edges, cracks and textures were simply invisible to me.

Look up at the stars. Then, look into a bright light. Look up at the stars again. They have disappeared.

Prick your lip with a pin. Naturally, it hurts. Now slowly, firmly, bite your lip. Make it bleed. Now prick it with the pin again. You can't feel a thing. The greater pain of the bite has numbed you to the lesser pain of the pin-prick, just as the brightness of the light bulb blinded you to the stars.

Now imagine someone gives you other senses, beyond those you were born with. Imagine you can see the full gamma spectrum, hear the harmonic whine of tensile stress, feel electric flow, and smell magnetism. Imagine you have whole new ways to see the world, new avenues of pain and pleasure. Next imagine that, several years later, that same someone takes those senses away from you.

You've got used to them. What you're left with -- the old signals of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch -- seem weak and washed out. Sometimes, they hardly seem to be there at all.

That's Epistemic Appetite Imbalance. The metaphors are sound except in one detail. Night-sight recovers in a quarter-hour or so. Sensitivity returns to a torn lip in less than a day.

But EAI doesn't go away. Not for good, anyway.

The numbness keeps coming back.

I found the bathroom and washed the sleep out of my eyes. My face felt like crumpled polythene. There was no way I could tell, by touch or taste or in the mirror, just how bad I looked. Maybe the gray and granulated skin and the sucking sound in my ears were illusory; maybe they weren't.

In the kitchen I looked round for something to eat. The freezer was stacked to the brim with processed white bread. In the pantry I found a Morrisons carrier bag full of UHT milk, tinned tomatoes and pasta twirls.

'Oh fuck off,' I said. But the words came out flat and broken, reminding me of those machines in lifts that stick words together into artificial sentences.

I looked out of the window. The ground was a sodden grey carpet. Mud? Stone? Water? There was no way to tell. The landscape beyond was all pumice, the clouds a thin lather, sticking in scraps to the stone.

- 2 -

The weather grew cool. The sky was permanently over-cast. It drizzled in the afternoons. I tried walking into Stone Chair. The road descended steeply into the village. Lacking much sense of my movements, I felt as though I was being buffeted along like a half-inflated balloon. I stuck my legs out to either side of me like poles to guide my absurd, bobbing progress.

There was a school at the foot of the hill. A high chainlink fence surrounded the playground. It swayed drunkenly over the footpath whenever a football or a child collided with it. The children crowded up against the fence and watched me totter by. They jeered and pointed. I studied their grey faces. I didn't know whether to smile or snarl, or whether, with my face so sallow and sucked in, it would make any difference.

I turned the corner. The children ran round for a better look, gathering at the corner of the yard. I studied them as they pushed forward. Something strange was happening to them. They were somehow-separating.

Bodies moved and volumes stretched, spreading substance thinly through time. Leading edges had a greenish cast; trailing edges were tinted red.

Abruptly, everything yawed into focus: the green school jackets, red piping round the collar; amber faces, black shoes, white socks; the blue markings on the ash-grey yard. I grinned at this sudden return of colour vision. A boy, thinking my smile was an attempt at ingratiation, stuck a finger up at me. It was a dark finger, and the pinkness of the nail shone like a jewel.

Quickly, I doubled back past the playground. I wanted to be back in bed, watching the walls and the furniture take on their proper colours. It would be a rite of passage for me, I thought. An earnest of my recovery.

The children began to chant. Metal-head. A girl, meaner than the rest, pressed her face into the chicken wire and gobbed at me. Fascinated, I watched her phlegm spin and sparkle against the light. It fell short of me, and I let my gaze pass up into the brilliant red trees.

I returned home. As I'd feared and half-expected, the colours faded out as I walked. Once again I began to float wildly about the narrow road. I didn't seem able to control my legs. They felt as though they were being guided by something outside me. Subtle shifts of the earth's magnetism drew them this way and that. But this first hint of recovery excited me. I decided to call Joanne.

I entered the bedroom and looked round for the phone. I couldn't find it. There wasn't even a socket for it to plug into.

There never had been a phone. I remembered that I didn't know my ex-wife's number. Come to that, Ballantyne didn't have a secretary. My stomach yawed as I grasped the extent and detail of my night-time hallucinations.

I wondered about the girl. That tall, stiff, heart-rending Asiatic misery with her plates of watery soup. What if she was imaginary? I stopped myself, remembering something from my childhood.

Every time you say there are no fairies, somewhere a fairy drops dead.

My strength returned. Soon I was eating lunch every day in a pub in Stone Chair. I passed whole weeks this way, walking from farm to pub and from pub to farm, as restless as a Jersey cow, chained by its horns to a stake in the ground.

The lounge bar was laid out like a sitting room, with frayed easy chairs and magazine-laden coffee tables. Farm workers and a smattering of lapsed muslim travelling salesmen drank warm, weak ale from earthenware mugs. The barman was in his late teens and always wore the same thing: acid-blue sweatshirt and grey jogging pants. His mother -- wearing a shift that looked as though she'd sewn it together out of pink check dish-wipes -- looked on suspiciously from a dark corner. There were rings on all four fingers of her right hand and she was continually testing their musical properties against her mug.

To start with, I talked about the moon to anyone bored or drunk enough to listen. 'After a day spent blasting through new galleries,' I said, 'the streets smell of patchouli. But more often the air blows into the Domes from ports to the east. Then the stench of mould and pepper overlays everything like smoke from a burning tyre factory.'

I said, 'We were newly married. We were full of ourselves. We treated the place like a playground -- an amusement arcade of concrete panels and blue-tinted glass blasted by dust-devils howling up from the spiced honeycombs of the interior.'

I stopped saying these things after a while. I found it increasingly hard to believe what I was saying. Sometimes, forgetting some nuance of my life on the moon, I'd run trembling fingers through my hair, feeling for the plugs. Often a bitter tearfulness overwhelmed me, when I thought of how much I had lost of myself.

I wondered where Joanne was. I toyed with the idea of tracing her through her family. One day, walking back from the pub, I entered a public kiosk and dialled Paris. When the international monitor asked me the purpose of my call, I replaced the receiver.

A few days later, I received another visitor.

'Police! Open up!'

George Ballantyne stood on the bottom step, grinning up at me. 'How're you doing, lad?'

'George.'

He was a big man in his late fifties. He had the look of a labourer: someone who had never seen the inside of a gym, but had got a massy, disorganized kind of strength from hammering iron or juggling feed sacks. Much of this muscle had turned to fat, but there was still enough tone in his arms and his torso to make him formidable.

'Let me in, let me in, in the name of the Prince Regent.' George Ballantyne's Dumfries accent was more acute today, though no more accurate. As though driving North had reminded him dimly of his birthright.

I stood away from the door. He bustled in, Morrisons shopping bags straining to be free of his large, soft hands. 'I know you like books!' His face was gentle, as if to contradict the evidence of his body. His mouth was full and feminine. His long, receding red hair lay slickly across his scalp in a half-hearted comb-over. And while the ridges of bone under his brows gave his blue eyes a hint of animal menace, they also made him look stupid. He played on that; but I wasn't taken in.

I sat in the parlour and pulled out a handful of books from the bag. Ballantyne must have grabbed them at random off a market stall. Collingwood's The Meaning of History. A Playfair Cricket Annual for '56. A coffee-table book about window boxes.

'You've not been eating hardly,' he observed. He was restocking the larder with UHT and beans.

There was no point me explaining again about my diet. He would only start on about red meat or protein or haggis or something. I said: 'I've been lunching at the pub.'

Ballantyne came through from the kitchen, throwing his booted feet out to left and right. He told me once he'd lost his toes to frostbite. This was back in his army days, defending Karelia against the Finns. 'Christopher,' he said. 'I hope you're joking.'

I shrugged.

George sighed. 'I bring you to a place like this to disappear, lad.'

'I know all that.'

'You know what the police round here are like. I hope you've been discreet.'

I picked a book from the stack and started leafing through the introduction.

Ballantyne sat down opposite me. He took the testing kit from his jacket pocket. Casually he laid out needle, dishes, swabs. He'd grown used to my moods.

'There are one or two corners in every garden where plants simply refuse to grow,' I read. 'You plant all kinds of things there and in a matter of weeks they fizzle out and disappear.' I set the book aside and rolled up my left shirt-sleeve. I knew the routine.

'You let yourself get in a bad way before you phoned in,' said Ballantyne, sliding the cannula neatly into my vein.

'I have to be careful with money,' I said, looking away as he drew off a few CCs of blood.

'It's your health we're talking about. You mustn't take chances with it.'

'Yeah, yeah,' I drawled.

Ballantyne withdrew the needle and taped a swab over the puncture. I watched in silence as he fussed over his samples and reagents. In a few seconds, we would know if I could switch to the lower dose of ResponsIV.

Ballantyne nodded sagely over his watch, measuring some reaction or other. Satisfied, he packed the kit away. 'You're here a while longer, I'm afraid.'

I sighed. 'I really do have to get back.'

Ballantyne shook his head. 'You know how careful we have to be about this.'

I knew. I was a post-human: a metal-head. By international law, government authorities could demand a scan and a sample off me at any time. Plus Leeds was the capital now, and spot checks of this sort were common.

In lower doses, ResponsIV metabolises quickly, but higher doses linger -- something to do with the chemicals buffering the solution. Finding that stuff in my blood stream would send alarm bells ringing all the way down the Headrow. 'How long until I can go?'

'A couple of days,' said Ballantyne. 'One more full hit should do it.' He prepared the needle, jabbed me, pumped the clear liquor into my vein with a steady hand. 'I'll come see you Monday, if you like.'

'Sure,' I said, without enthusiasm. Since I'd first succumbed to his illicit treatments, I'd kept contacts with George Ballantyne to the minimum. Beneath his bumptious, spivvish exterior, I sensed something to be afraid of.

Ballantyne, notwithstanding his day-job with the London Met, made most of his living trading in pirated post-human accessories. I knew this because he was forever offering me deals on the most defective and infected-sounding packages. Somewhere along the line he had got it into his head that I must be secretly very well off. As though every lunar settler must, at some point during their stay, have discovered the burial chamber of a long-lost insect king. Or had, if not a bucket full of emeralds, at least a weathered map marking its location.

This time, though, Ballantyne's advice seemed more heartfelt. 'You have to look to the future, Chris,' he said. His spoon-like fingers weaved about each other on his lap like worms. 'If you come to London I could put you in touch with people.'

'I know your sort of people, George.'

Ballantyne looked at me blankly, then burst out laughing: 'Oh laddie!'

I winced. Being 'laddied' by George Ballantyne reminded me of every one of my forty-three years.

'The Met's not so bad! Did I tell you? I've moved division.'

'Really.'

'Special technologies,' he said, savouring each syllable.

'Supplying?'

'Advising,' Ballantyne corrected me, moueing to show how his feelings were hurt. It was an oddly effeminate expression for that big slack face. 'You know, you're wasting your talents in Leeds.'

'Headingley,' I amended, automatically.

'You don't belong there! With what you've done and what you've seen: a post-human, stuck out here in Sheepshaggerland-'

'I chose to live here, remember?'

'Stuck in that silly granny-flat of yours. Ticking by on Welfare…'

'I read a lot,' I replied, nettled. I was proud of my flat. I'd spent a lot of money on it. My life was how I wanted it.

'You're still a young man!'

I shrugged. I'd no illusions of that sort left.

'Look.' Ballantyne stared into his lap. His fingers span, weaving a cat's cradle out of air. 'If you're in London. Any reason. Call the clinic.'

'George, I left London. I'm not going back to London.'

'No.' Ballantyne accepted my brush-off with a smile. He stood up. 'No. Of course not. Still. Who knows, eh?' He slapped me on the shoulder and made for the door.

'George?'

George turned.

'Who was it looked after me? Some girl.'

'A girl was here?'

'Feeding me soup.'

Ballantyne looked blank. Reflexively, he ran his blunt fingertips through his comb-over, ruining it. 'I've no idea.'

'I thought maybe it was my imagination.'

'It must have been,' he said. Then, 'What did she look like?'

'Asian. Young. Hacked off about something.'

'One of the nurses might have sent someone over.' He was trying to sound casual. It wasn't working.

'Is something wrong?'

'Only that nobody told me. Forget it.'

Ballantyne's car was slung low. Gravel pinged against its belly as it swung toward the gates. I watched it go.

- 3 -

Textures came back. A few muted colours. At the pub, the beer started tasting of soap, and I remembered why I never drank it.

I slept less. I explored the house, and found a canvas day-pack in a cupboard under the stairs. Two or three times a week I got up before dawn and hired taxis to take me to the railway station. I ate chocolate from the platform vending machines until a milk train arrived heading west or north. Sometimes I was able to catch an extra hour's sleep as I rode, tucking the sack between my head and the carriage window.

I'd end up in Settle as likely as not, and ate breakfast at a cafe near the railway station.

I walked the bridleway to Langcliffe and back, and ran my hands along the dry-stone walls until they were raw, willing them to feel something. As the days went by, so the numbness in my fingers eased. The feel of moss, soft and congealed under my fingertips, was delicious and surprising. I picked at it, discovering thin fibrous soil. I rubbed it to a mulch between my fingers.

I sniffed my soiled fingertips, but detected nothing. Smell was always the last sense to come back.

I headed east, up close-cropped banks to Attermire Scar. It had been raining and the rise was steep. Small stone outcrops poked out the turf at long intervals, and I slithered from one to the other, panting and grinning, trying to get a foothold. I reached the top. Black Hill lay to the south; to the left rose fractured limestone crags, overgrown with lichen and turfs.

There was a natural shelter in the rock nearby. The map called it a cave, because around here people have to make the best of what they have. The walls were rough and dry, angled towards each other to make a Gothic arch. The ground was puddled. Crisp packets poked out from behind a rock. I crawled in and found a dry patch and sat, waiting for the sky to clear. It wasn't long after dawn, and the sun had yet to breach the heavy cloud. A feverish pink haze banded the horizon. I wondered wearily how much that dead fluorescent light was real, how much a product of my faulty vision.

I awoke around noon, excited for no reason. It had stopped raining. There were breaks in the cloud. I'd planned to head south towards Malham Tarn; that way I'd be home by nightfall. Instead, sensing some important change in my condition, I climbed north, over long stretches of ankle-breaking limestone pavement. There were plants growing between the ridges: ferns, red grasses, odd blooms with serrated leaves.

The terraces closed in on either side: The map called this place Yew Cogar Scar. I smiled the smile of a connoisseur. On the moon, I'd often had the job of assigning names to the places where we raised our settlements. I walked through the Scar and came to a valley, steep and grass-banked. At last the sun came out; it lit up the stream at the valley bottom like a shaft of steel.

The valley led straight into Arncliffe. I descended the heather-heavy slopes, racing the declining light. When I reached the village I looked back, surveying the terraces down which I'd climbed. Their outlines appeared mathematically precise in the oblique light, like a series of gigantic gold coins stacked one on top of the other. I counted them, noting their serrations and their flaws.

Yew Cogar Scar.

The air smelled faintly of manure and rape-seed. I turned my face to the setting sun and let its antique light flood my eyes. My feet were sore, I could feel new blisters forming, and I smiled, because I could feel these things.

I was getting better.

I walked into Kettlewell and waited for the bus to take me home. The wooden seat was covered in rusty moss. Where the sunlight struck it, it blazed with reds and russets. The colourful bodies of horseflies popped and flashed in the brassy light like soap bubbles.

The bus emerged from over the brow of the hill, its plastic hide white from the narrow roads as though it were dusted with sugar. I stood: sun-dried thistles crackled under my feet.

The windows of the bus were tinted turquoise: it was as though we were being driven deep under the waves, to a land reflected in mirrors of cold green water. I leaned back and closed his eyes, and though the roads were rough, only the faintest vibration troubled my dreams…

Luckily the driver remembered my destination. Woken by his shout, I sat up; confused, still half asleep, I looked out of the window. I saw the school -- empty now -- and the hill up to Long Lover farm. The sky was the colour of ale. I pulled myself out of the seat. Exhaustion had set my joints like solder. I climbed off the bus. The pavements, blasted by the furnace of the afternoon, were hot as kiln bricks under my feet.

I walked up the hill, past the playground, and ran my fingers along the chain-link fence. The rust stuck to my fingertips, tacky like pollen. Trees overhung the road at its steepest section and plunged me into twilight. The air here was as sweet and molten as a berry. I thought of my bed, and of the simple solitary comfort of my hermitage. I yawned, and laid my hand on the gate. It swung open.

It had been unfastened.

I stopped dead. There was a vehicle in the yard. A Land Rover, with its lights off.

I approached as quietly as I could. The vehicle had army drab paintwork. Stencilled on the door in bronze paint was the crescent of the District Sheriff's office. It was empty.

Where was the driver? Was he waiting for me in the house?

I walked back down the drive. It would only take a few seconds, I thought, then I'd be safe behind the screen of the hedge. Then I might be able to think of something. Like who had given me away.

How had they found me? Who, other than Ballantyne and his nurses, knew I was here?

My heart trembled. The fear was exhilarating. I felt absurdly fit and young.

'Mr Yale!'

I stopped.

'It is Mr Yale, isn't it? Christopher Yale?'

I turned around. 'It is,' I said, affecting casual surprise. I tried to remember what Ballantyne had told me to say, if I was ever questioned about the treatments.

The sheriff's skin was the mucky, yellowish sort common to the area: milky Lancashire curdling in Bangladesh. He was short, and his head was too big. 'I am Sheriff Anwar Mukut.' He laid a thick, ugly, carefully manicured hand on my sleeve. It's warmth penetrated the flocking of my anorak. 'Please, I must have a word.' The little man led me towards the house. 'I hoped it might be you, sir. I've come--' He stopped in the middle of the path. I tried to meet his eyes, but he kept shying away. 'This is very distressing,' he said.

I pulled away and climbed the concrete steps to the front door. I turned the key, and wondered if I was entitled to shut the sheriff out.

But Mukut made no move to enter. He folded his hands meekly over his stomach. 'I really have to tell you some very bad news, sir.'

'Really.'

'Mr Yale,' he said, 'I've been asked to accompany you to London, sir.'

So.

'What on earth for?' I blustered, playing for time.

The little man gaped, as though I'd somehow misunderstood him. 'Oh Mr Yale,' he said. He made a brushing gesture with his hands, as if to sweep away whatever misunderstanding had come between us. 'We've found a body, sir.'

I stood there stupidly, straddling the threshold.

The sheriff extended his hands in a plea.

'We think it's your wife,' he said.


© Simon Ings 1999

Headlong is published in the UK by HarperCollins.

Read a review of Headlong by Keith Brooke.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:


Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:
sf@infinityplus.co.uk

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror
amazon.com (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)


top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]