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Castles Made of Sand

an extract from the novel
by Gwyneth Jones


An Extract from Chapter Three:
remastered for Infinity Plus, with some authorial notes


Car Park Barbie
(Was: Sweetness and Light)

In the second week of July the summer circuit brought them back to London, for the gala opening of an urban Castles Made of Sandexterior art show called 'Stairway To Heaven: The Virtual Counterculture'. The day was warm and humid. Immaterial artworks filled Trafalgar Square1, glittering with colour and causing consternation to the pigeons. The great and the good and the media people stood about nattering; the PA played a medley of the Few's greatest hits.

Ax, a guitar over his shoulder because he'd been busking for the cameras, stopped to talk to the Reading Site barefoot-architects, who were here with a maquette of their new Rivermead building. The building -- multicoloured and crinkly, a kind of lo-rise Barcelona Cathedral -- was constructed out of reclaimed car-bodies and mulched plastic waste. It was genuinely cheap, unlike some recycling options; and people would get used to the way it looked, (you have to be patient with architecture). Ax was less happy to see that the flood-proofing scheme, which involved pumping a layer of CO2 under the whole Festival site, had reappeared. Tempting though it might be to envisage the Rock and Roll Reich kept afloat on a sea of dry ice, the expense would be ludicrous.

'But Ax, Rivermead's yer showcase,' insisted the team leader, a rotund lunatic white guy with a beard like a bramble bush, known to his pals as Topsy2. 'This is hot tech for the flood countries, we have to be there, you got to see that.'

'Fuck. I'm just a vapid materialistic rockstar, you're the eco-warriors. If you can't live with the river, move away. What happened to listening to Gaia?'

'What if we can get funding from the government?' asked a barefoot-architect henchwoman, at which Topsy glared at her furiously.

'What if we pretend you didn't say that. Do you really want Rivermead part-owned by the suits? I don't care what they told you, they have no money: but if they had, we wouldn't take it. I said no, and I mean no. Forget it.'

Silver Wing and her sister Pearl, wearing their butterfly dresses from the Mayday concert, were competing to hammer on the button that made the model heave up and down in its cellulose case. 'Stop that,' said Silver, 'you're breaking it.'

'You stop. I was touching the button first.'

'Stop it or I'll tear your fucking head off.'

Time to move on. Anne Marie had a charming habit of simply letting her rugrats loose on Few occasions, taking it for granted someone she knew would have to pick up her childcare. Breaking up their fights was ugly work: let the hippies do it.

Fiorinda was walking around with her gran. The old lady had no interest in rock music and never came to gigs, but there was a much-hyped portrait of her granddaughter at the exhibition, and this had inspired a rare sortie from her lair, in the basement of the cold house where Firorinda had been brought up. Gran had expected a limousine, and probably a motorcyle escort. She'd refused the modest, green alternative of Fiorinda fetching her in a taxi, and come along with some neighbours, who were now mingling with the crowd, mildly fascinated to be in the highest company, the most VIP enclosure in the land.

'You're behind the times, Frances dear,' said Gran. 'Sainsburys sells magic now. You can buy cantrips in Boots. Why shouldn't I use my little powers?'

Gran was a witch, a Wiccan. She'd been plying her trade for years, on the quiet, but these days it wasn't so funny. Fiorinda had been getting a worrying report on the old lady's antics. 'Just stick to the herbal remedies,' said Fiorinda. 'Please. Promise me that.'

She ignored the irritating reappearance of her original name. She hadn't called herself 'Frances' since she was eleven. Gran knew that. She was just being annoying.

'I'm not doing anything wrong,' said the old lady. 'You shouldn't listen to tell-tales.'

They stopped in front of a voluptuous, virtual purple female with fuschia-pink parted lips, crouched upon a gravestone in a midnight churchyard. So much for the futuristic Arts and Crafts Movement. Poor Ax ... Oh well. I suppose it's better than famine and mob violence.

'You know what I'm talking about.'

Gran had grown smaller, the way old people do; but her button eyes were bright as ever. 'You're the one who should be careful how you use your powers, my dear. Which are far greater than mine. You can't go on suppressing nature this way. It isn't right.'

Fiorinda returned the sly, challenging look and grinned, unabashed.

'Oh no? Watch me ... Come on, you said you wanted to see the portrait.'

'Isn't this it?' said Gran, maliciously, affecting old-lady confusion and peering at the purple Classic Metal Calendar Girl. 'It's very nice. Atmospheric, I would call it.'

'No, Gran. You know I never wear pink lipstick.'

Later, Fiorinda and Allie took a break, sitting on the broad, black back of one of Landseer's lions, sipping frosted sherbert. It was fortunate that this wasn't a party where one would want to get drunk, because sherbert was the only nice thing on offer. The fake champagne was vile. Above them a collar of shimmering perturbation (unoriginally titled 'Untitled') circled Nelson's column, as if that massive limb of ribbed stone was sporting a mauve and silver ballet tutu. A party of Islamist elders strolled by, casting a tolerant eye on the infidel excesses, and bowed to Ax's lady. 'I like the tutu,' said Allie. 'They should keep it. And Whistlejacket is amazing. I haven't seen a single other thing I can stand.'

'Fucking unicorn-merchants,' agreed Fiorinda. 'It's embarrassing.' The show featured a few masterpieces, rendered in virtual 3-D for the first time (Stubbs, Constable, Turner: had to be English, of course). The rest of the stuff was like that Calendar Girl -- school of hippy market stall, faithfully imitated by currently famous names.

She sighed. 'Bad news -- '

'Sage has punched someone from NME.'

'Hahaha. No! The only problem with that review3 is that Peter is now afraid to go out without a mask, in case he gets mobbed. Otherwise Sage thinks it's fine. He says... The bad news is my gran. She's fallen out with her lodgers again.'

'Oh God. She hasn't hexed them?'

''Fraid so. Mrs Mohanjanee says she's been acting confused. I don't believe that. She's putting it on because she knows she's in trouble. But she's nearly eighty, and she's not a young eighty -- '

'Is she a real witch? I mean, can she do things?'

Fiorinda shrugged. 'I suppose we have to admit that it can happen, these days. I don't think she's very effective at it, thank God. But that's not the issue.' She stared into her glass and sighed again. 'The issue is that you grow up, and then your past returns to haunt you. Family things. Fuck. I thought I had dumped all that.'

'What about sheltered housing? You could find her a really nice place.'

'And throw away the key,' agreed Fiorinda, with feeling. 'It's a plan. Nah, I couldn't do that to her. What she needs is someone to live in that house, not obviously a nurse or a warden, who'll get on with her and keep her under control. What she wants is me. She wants me to move back there, the way I did when my mother was dying.'

'Has she asked you?'

'I won't let her. I sneak out of it. But I know what's on her mind. Fuck. What would I do? Have Sage and Ax visit me at weekends, huh?'

'No one expects you to do that,' said Allie quickly. 'Don't even think about it!' (Allie making a mental note to warn Ax about this bright idea. Fiorinda must not go back to that place, the scene of her appalling childhood. Not even part-time!)

'Don't worry, I'm not tempted. But ... I don't know what to do. It's not going to be easy to find a keeper she'll tolerate.' She prepared to slide down from the lion's back. 'I'm going to be polite to the artist-bloke. I said I'd talk to him when I'd seen Gran off, and that will be my last mingle, okay?'

The artist was standing beside his much-hyped picture, posing for the crowds and talking to Chip and Verlaine. Faced with his subject's undivided attention he grew curiously modest and timid; muttered a few platitudes and melted away. She was left looking at the portrait while the small crush of people, held back behind an invisible line by her presence, looked at Fiorinda.

She Feeds And Clothes Her Demons. It was a 3-D image of a picture in a frame, oils on canvas, photorealist. The figure was nearly life-sized, the frame antique. The original would be taking up residence in the City Art Gallery in Birmingham. A tired, pallid young woman with red hair, wearing a tattered green dress, crouches among the roots of a fallen oak. Livid little Hieronymous Bosch nightmare creatures are crawling out of cracks in the bark, from holes in the ground, buzzing in the air. She's feeding them cupcakes, sweets, chocolates, and giving them clothes out of a tapestry bag.

The bloke had worked from photographs. He'd wanted to borrow the green silk dress, the Fiorinda dress from Dissolution Summer, but they hadn't been able to let him. That dress had fallen into rags and been buried, like a pet hamster (only way Fiorinda's friends could stop her from wearing it) in Reading site boneyard; it wasn't going to be exhumed. Surprise: the picture was good. She hadn't expected that ... She reached out, to see her fingers go through the frame: which was something everyone was doing to the virtual art.

'Do you like it?' asked Chip, looking over her shoulder.

'I think it's creepy,' said Fiorinda softly. 'It's good but it's creepy. They're not demons, if he means the drop-out hordes. There's no need to feel too sorry for most of them, to an extent they've made their own luck. But they're not demons.'

She looked around for the artist, wanting to speak to him now, but couldn't see him; and rubbed her bare arms, chilled, thinking about the shape of things to come ... The radio bead in her ear -- routine security -- let her eavesdrop on several conversations, sorting them with ease (it's a knack). Anne-Marie, on the other side of the square, giving some media folk the benefit of her Countercultural Feminism (all men are scum. Any woman who doesn't live in a bender with sixteen kids is denying her true self...)

Suddenly the whole babble, including AM's manifesto, was cut off:

Doug, says the Triumvirate are wanted urgently at Blue Gate.

They met in the crowd. Sage was wearing his beautiful suit, but skull-masked, as was appropriate for a digital art show. Ax had been talking with the PM, a social obligation his Triumvirate partners had callously avoided. 'Maybe this is it,' said Fiorinda, only half-joking, thinking of Massacre Night. But they would never be caught like that again.

'Nah,' said Ax. 'I don't smell trouble.'

'It'll be nothing.' Sage pressed his fingertips, virtual and real, together, and pulled them apart, drawing out a skein of vivid blue sparks. Nice trick.

'Where'd'you get that?' asked Ax.

'In the workshop. Want some?'

Ax and Sage were right. At Blue Gate ('Blue Gate' at an event like this, was code for wherever the Few's own security had their command post), outside the iridescent screens that closed off the square from public access, they found the crew chatting to a raw-boned ginger-haired bloke in grimy jeans, silver rings in his ears, wearing a blanket round his shoulders. So, a normal Countercultural citizen, one of thousands; but Fiorinda thought there was something familiar about his seamed, alcohol-ruined face --

'Hi folks,' said Doug, grinning. 'Got someone here wants to thump Sage.'

'Hey, Sage,' said the ginger-haired bloke, 'told yez I'd be back.'


Ax laughed. 'What are you doing here, you crazy Irishman?'

The stranger gave them a gap-toothed, blackened, charming grin. 'What would I be doing? I've defected, comrades. I've come to serve the cause. If ye'll have me.'

So that was why he looked familiar. This was Fergal Kearney of the Playboys, the Belfast band who'd been over for the Rock The Boat tour last summer. Fiorinda hadn't met him, she'd been on a different line-up on the tour, but Fergal was a living legend. A fine musician, real contender, who had destroyed himself with drink and drugs; a stage compadre people spoke of with affection and respect, in spite of his fucked-up career ... Oh great, she thought, standing on the edge of the conversation. Another of those music biz guy-relationships, that I don't understand because the world ended before I could get trained in how to react, so now I'll never get it. She was prejudiced against the Irish.

Fergal turned to her. 'This is Fiorinda?'

'Yeah,' she said, 'this is Fiorinda.'

'Jaysus,' said the Irishman, staring at her intently but not offensively. His eyes were blue-green, in cruel contrast to his pocked, scarlet complexion. 'Y'er even lovelier than yer videos...' He gulped. 'It's a great pleasure. No, it's an honour.'

He groped under the blanket, which she saw was really some kind of Celtic mantle. A couple of police liaison officers, not quite as happy as Doug with this situation, made a half-move. Fergal brought out an Irish harp, most of the gilding gone but all the strings in place. 'I saw yez first on the tv, Dissolution Summer. I've never missed a chance since. Ye're the bravest girl I ever saw, an' a queen of the music.Ye'r worth ten of Ax Preston, which I hope he knows, and ten hundred of this focker Aoxomoxoa: and now I've told ye, which was half me plan in coming to England. Here's me harp. I'd lay it at yer feet. But I'd only look a fockin' eedjit and embarrass ye, so I won't do that.'

She couldn't think of a response. Fergal's complexion grew even more scarlet. He cleared his throat. 'Uh, well, that's the business done. Now, Sage, me favourite fallen angel, is there anywhere here a man could get a drink?'

Being called a fallen angel pissed Sage off. It was a media term for the former global earners, trapped and impoverished by the data quarantine. But the living skull merely beamed affectionately. 'Ooh, I think we could arrange that.'

They crossed the square, Fergal gazing around in frank curiosity: taking in the VIP crowd, the armed police side by side with the hippy guards, the slick and gaudy revolutionary art. 'Fock, this is amazin'. I niver thought, this time last year, ye'd still be keeping it all going. An' how's the band, Ax? Shane and Jordan, and yer girlfriend. Sorry, I shouldn't say that. Yer ex-girlfriend. Lovely woman, I forget her name, yer drummer. Are they here?'

'They're not in London at the moment.'

'Oh, right so. You know, there's been rumours. I'd hate to think that the Chosen -- '

'Nothing's wrong.'

'That's grand, because I can see how it must be tough, havin' yer frontman into focking government politics -- '

'I'm not into government politics. I'm into Community Service, state ceremonies and putting on a few free concerts, that's all. Everything's fine, Fergal. Thanks for asking.'

It was months since the Few had had such an interesting visitor, and Ireland was outside data quarantine (having been judged innocent of the Ivan/Lara virus disaster); which made Fergal even more welcome. They abandoned the VIPs, arts establishment and dignitaries of the three nations of Mainland Britain and took him back to the Insanitude, for a tour of such of the old pile that wasn't Boat People accommodation -- and then took him out to eat at their favourite Mexican. The English were hungry for news of the world they'd lost. The Irishman was flatteringly insistent that the Rock and Roll Reich was not forgotten. They were famous. They were the coolest thing in the wreck of Europe --

'Fock,' he kept saying, 'here am I among the legends!'

Of course he wasn't a stranger to the Reich. Last summer, when an armada of four hundred thousand refugees had come across the North Sea, through the worst storms in a century, the Playboys had been part of the chaotic mad panic as the Few and guests raced up and down the country, staving off anarchy with free rock concerts.

'Jaysus, that was the best hard fun I iver had on a tour, barring none. Dez ye recall that night in Manchester, or was it Preston, Sage?'

'Yeah,' said George Merrick. 'You bet we do.'

The Playboys, righteous traditional musicians, had taken offence against the Heads' set and heckled from the side of stage, resisting the efforts of crewpersons to silence them, until Sage dropped out of his acrobatics and --

'Yer man, looking ten foot tall in that fockin' spaceman outfit, comes over and sez to me, "Will we give you bastards what you are asking for now or later?"'

'An' Fergal here,' supplied Bill, 'says, "We didn't know you do requests. In that case, we'll have, 'A Nation Once Again',", and then -- '

'You left out, "If Sage can find his voice in those tin knickers",' put in Chip.

'Yeah, there was the tin knickers remark. Think that was from Pierce Lyon.'

'Aye, that's right. Because it was when Sage picked up our Peezy -- he's a little man -- and threw him off the stage, that the fockin' punters took it into their minds to get involved. An' it was pissing down, and there was mud fockin' everywhere -- '

'Funny, I don't think I ever heard this story before,' said Ax, grinning. 'I fondly imagined we were all trying to keep the level of violence down -- '

'Fergal, what are you doing to me?' protested Aoxomoxoa. 'Hey, it wasn't me, Sah. I was somewhere else. It must've been my shadow. I don't remember any of this -- '

'Oh Jaysus, I fergot, ye've turned over a big new leaf. Will it be okay though if I tell the story of that barney we had at Glasto, first time we ever met -- ?'

The story of the famous barney at Glasto, well-known but worth repeating. Stories abounding. Fergal Kearney, devouring red wine in astounding quantities, kept them coming. It was after midnight before they got back to the San, and he was going strong, living up to his reputation for the highest quality craig (Irish, verbal variety).

Dilip and Chip and Ver stripped to bodymasks and cache-sex and went off to dance, (it was melting-hot on the dancefloors in the State Apartments). The rest of them settled regally, in the Bow Room chill-out lounge. The band who'd been playing live in the ballroom arrived to pay their respects, and were graciously allowed to stay: sweaty, glittering clubbers made excuses to come up and say hi. Fiorinda chatted to the singer with the band, a brash overawed fifteen-year-old called Areeka Aziz; strangely distracted by the sound of that rambling Irish voice. It set her teeth on edge. Areeka was supposed to be a Next Big Thing, and needed to be sounded out for Few associate status. So this is what we'll do now, thought Fiorinda. We'll recruit the new wave, the second generation. Me, chickenhawk. Well, that's not so bad-

At the other table Fergal had reached the garrulous stage and was explaining exactly why he'd 'defected' ... 'Fockin' government sez there's no Countercultural Problem in Oirland, fockin' shite. Right enough it's not the Counterculture that's the problem, it's the fockin' bastards that are using it fer their own sinister aims, an' I know where it's heading. It'll be like the fockin' Catholic church all over again, and will the people rise up against the tyranny of it? Will they fock -- '

That voice. She couldn't help it, she really didn't like that sound --

'Fockin' Irish, they're a race of political masochists, they love their fockin' chiefs and princes an' a strong hand belting them. It's like the man said in the play. Abair an focal republic i nGaoluinn?'

The Few looked at George Merrick.

'He says, "say 'republic' for me in the Irish",' said George, 'the point being, I reckon, that there's no such word.'

Fergal stared, his seagreen eyes growing brighter in the dim, chill-out light. 'Jaysus. I had fergot ye had the Gaelic. I shall have to watch me tongue -- '

'There's no word for republic in Cornish either,' said George, grinning.

'I'm only glad there's a countrywoman of mine among ye to stand up for me.'

The Irishman cast a wistful glance towards Fiorinda, who was sitting with her straight back turned to him: still dressed for the art show, feet tucked up under her storm-cloud indigo skirts, a silver grey bolero jacket covering her shoulders, a little silver cap on her burning hair --

She looked around. 'I am not Irish,' she said, the cut-crystal vowels very apparent.

'Aye, well. Half-Irish, I meant to say.'

Chip and Ver and Dilip came in, dripping sweat and towelling themselves with sodden teeshirts. They stopped short, looking at each other in dismay. A frisson went round the whole party. Fergal must know about Fiorinda and her father. What is he thinking of?

The rock and roll brat shrugged. 'Tuh. My father was born in Chicago.'

'It makes no odds. Ye can be Irish by adoption, 'tis a culture, not a race.'

Rufus O'Niall, veteran megastar. Born in Chicago of Black and Irish American ancestry, raised in Ireland by his adoptive parents, a minor Hollywood movie actress and a Belfast businessman. Married twice, divorced twice. Had a daughter with London rock journalist Suzy Slater, a relationship that broke up when the child was four. When that daughter was twelve she was taken by her aunt, a procuress to the famous, to spend the weekend at Rufus's English manor house. The little girl was seduced by the star and later became pregnant by him. She had no idea he was her father. Opinion is divided as to whether Rufus knew what he was doing.

That's the story. Everyone knows it. Shut up, Fergal. But no, he can't stop digging --

'Yer dad's a black-hearted swine, Fiorinda, as yez don't need me to tell ye. He's one of the bastards I was just talking of. But I hate the whole fockin' Irish nation meself, an' I'm still an Irishman.'

'I don't follow your logic.'

'Jaysus, girl, I'm saying don't turn yer back on yer heritage, because one man did ye a terrible wrong when ye was too young to know -- '

'What I want to know,' announced Chip, loud and clear, flopping down in an empty chair, 'is, when are we going to see some Gay Pride from Aoxomoxoa?'

'Oh come on,' said Rob, equally loud, lamming some of those art-workshop sparks at the insolent kid (Rob's were acid yellow). 'Leave the guys some dignity. You want Fiorinda to make you a video or something?'

'Hey, it's a plan. That could be a nice little earner.'

'The words tigers and vaseline come to mind -- ' sighed Felice, rolling her eyes.

'He'd never do it,' said Allie, 'not after everything he's said about gays. He's such a hypocrite. Okay, we use a body double. Should be easy. I'll check my personal database.'

'Nah. Has to be the boss. We'll let 'im have his mask -- '

'Why is it always me?' demanded Sage. 'Why don't you fuckers pick on Ax?'

'They can't,' said Ax, leaning back beside his Minister on the sofa they were sharing, grinning complacently. 'I'm the great dictator. They have to pick on you.'

'You're his bitch, Sage,' said Dilip. 'We thought you knew that.'

Fergal, looking confused, joined in the general laughter.

Fiorinda had escaped to the toilet. She stood clinging to the porcelain anchor of a wash basin, staring through the face in the mirror. The raffish splendour of the State Apartments didn't extend behind the scenes. Here there were broken tiles, ancient utilitarian fittings, dirt in the corners. Such is our small world. Such is the shabby little hothouse we call our Rock and Roll Reich, where everyone knows what you mustn't say to Fiorinda, where everyone in the room jumps a mile if someone dares to mention her father's name in her royal presence. Oh fuckit, get a grip, this is ridiculous, put it behind you, worse things have happened to plenty of stupid twelve-year-olds, why am I fucking shaking? Thank God Fergal Kearney would never know the abyss into which he had plunged her. Any luck, he'll just think I'm naturally rude and snotty --

Shit, what did I say to Areeka before I scooted out here? I was filthy rude to her too, I know I was. Shit. Have to fix that.

Now I'm going back, and I'll behave like a human being. I can do it.

She opened the door. Sage and Ax were waiting in the dark passageway outside (biological sex not an issue, but you don't invade the Ladies at the San unless you are dressed like a lady). Ax had her bag. 'Moving on,' he said, tucking it onto her shoulder.

'Raves to rave,' said Sage, kneeling to put her sandals on her feet.

'The night to explore.'

'What's wrong? What are you doing? I'm fine. Let's get back.'

'Not fucking likely,' said Ax. 'Fergal has had his audience with the great dictator. Let's hit the town.'

London was dark and motorised traffic scarce, but the night was warm and the streets were full of people: moving around in droves, carrying their own lights, looking for the party. Sage and Ax and Fiorinda joined the shadowy carnival. Some unmarked time later they were in a club called 69, on the Caledonian Road, behind Kings Cross Station. Desmond Dekker, Marvin Gaye. Eyekicks of startled recognition in the fitful light, but no fuss: these were Ax Preston's children. At the back of the floor Fiorinda danced with Ax, easy and close, letting the bittersweet defiant mood of the ancient music lift her. It was so wonderful to be in his arms, and Sage right there (leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette, choosing to watch his lovers rather than dance), not jealous, not hurting, loving this beautiful guitar-man as much as she did. How can anything be wrong, what does anything else matter, as long as I have my tiger and my wolf --

'Sage!' she whispered, over Ax's shoulder. 'I have to have this Ax. Somewhere private. Right now.'

'Is that so? What about you, Mr Dictator?'


'Okay. Leave this to me.'

He led them out the back of the building. There was a car park, dank and dark, by the Regent Canal, buddleia and willowherb sprouting from the asphalt, almost empty except for a couple of rows of derelicts that might have been there since Dissolution. Sage lifted Fiorinda onto the bonnet of a flat-tyred Vauxhall, divested her of her pretty pants (he loves having her underwear in his pocket -- ) and stooped over her, the skull mask glimmering silver. 'My brat, but you hate al fresco sex?'

'This isn't outdoors,' said Fiorinda, hugging him with arms and legs. 'This is an urban exterior, which is totally different, I like this -- '

One deep kiss and he moved aside, saying All yours, Sah -- a little atavistic ritual happening, part laughing and part strangely intense. Fiorinda took Ax, Ax silently powering into her, God, wonderful, while Sage kept watch at the end of the row. Then Sage was back, twisting Mr Dictator's hair in a silky rope, biting the nape of his neck, big cat style: hey, brother, move over, I want her, and it was Ax's turn to stand guard...The whole double act took about five minutes, and it was bliss.

They sat in a row, backs against the old motor, passing a spliff, the rain falling on them like cold kisses. The air smelled of railway grime; puddles glimmered on black, cracked pavement. Fiorinda, a warm wall on either side of her, looked up into the opaque sky and couldn't stop grinning. No one understands us, she thought. Not anyone in this fucking country, not our dear, protective, demanding friends, no one: because this is all we want. Nothing else, just this. Forever, ever, ever.

'Good car to drive,' mused Sage. 'After a war.4'

'Very poky ride -- '

'Cheap to run an' all. Couple of pints of snakebite and a handful of Bombay Mix, she'll go all night.'

'Lovely interior.'

'Mm, and great road holding -- '

'You noticed that too?'

'Hohum,' said Fiorinda, pulling her hair across her face in two thick hanks of tangled curls. 'Fiorinda remains problematic role model for liberated young women of England.'

'Ah, no!' They grabbed her, swept her up onto the bonnet again and fell to their knees, pressing the cold, rosy soles of her feet to their faces, kissing away the gravel and rainwater and dogshit. 'Fiorinda, angel, empress, we're stupid drunks, we thought it was funny, we didn't mean -- '

'Idiots. Let me down.'

They lifted her down and cuddled her close between them, but they were a little sad now, a little crestfallen. Sage leaned over and kissed Ax, a long kiss: rubbed his cheek against Fiorinda's hair and heaved a sigh. 'Ah, well. Me and my ruined fortunes.'

'Yeah. Me and my falling-apart band. Ouch, ouch, ouch.'

'He doesn't mean any harm.'

'Nah. Just not the soul of tact, our Fergal. It's not his fault we're caught in this trap.'

'As long as we can get pissed and fuck in a car park, in the pouring rain,' said Fiorinda, 'I reckon we have not lost the game of life.5'

'I love you, Fee, because you are so wise.'

Sage went indoors to rescue Fiorinda's bag and sandals from becoming the objects of a cargo cult. They headed for home on the all-night Underground, the carriage almost empty and weirdly bright, Fiorinda curled up on Sage's knees, falling asleep. 'I wonder what he's really here for,' she mumbled. 'Fergal.' Sage and Ax exchanged a wry glance.

'I expect we'll find out soon enough,' said Ax.

Fergal Kearney came to the flat in Matthew Arnold Mansions6, Brixton Hill, on a warm grey summer evening two days later. He was staying at the Insanitude, where the building management had found him a room. Mr Preston himself came down to let him in. Fergal followed the Dictator upstairs, into the living quarters, and stood looking around. He saw a big room, very simply furnished: a gas stove in an old-fashioned fireplace, a few pictures on the walls, a couple of good North African rugs. Tall windows at the back stood open to a brick terrace, with pots of greenery. You might call the style minimalist, but there's nothing precious about it. Just travelling light. Here, on a stand on a bookcase, is the stone axe, the famous Sweet Track Jade, the one they gave him when he was inaugurated. Here's a pair of car numberplates, AX1, which someone must also have given him. Mr Preston is way too arrogant for vanity plates, so they end up an ironic ornament. Here's an immersion cell, in a flat screen, Sage Pender's best work, Jaysus that's a pretty thing, and better not look at it too long for it will suck you in. Here's a framed piece of Arabic lettering; looks antique. He frowned. Ah, now, the Islamic question ... The smell of cooking drifted pleasantly from somewhere further into the flat. Mr Preston is an excellent cook, that's also part of the legend. An open door gave a glimpse of a wide, low bed. A tortoiseshell cat crouched on one of the couches by the stove: poised, glaring at him, as if not sure which way to run.

He was trying to read the runes. How do they live together, these two beautiful, powerful men? How do things shake down between them: Mr Ax Preston, with the air of command on him that you could cut with a knife, and Sage, who surely to God (joking apart) is no feller's bitch -- ? He already knew, from the way he'd been greeted, to expect a little distance. Mr Preston at home is not going to be the same person as Ax, relaxed and half-drunk at the Insanitude.

There was nothing that suggested Fiorinda, and this caused him concern. Why does she leave no mark? Ax, seeing his visitor preoccupied, had returned to the current jigsaw, and sat cross-legged beside it on the floor.

'You're alone?'said Fergal, at last.

'Yeah. So, what did you want to talk to me about?'

'Yez don't keep any staff here?'

'Fuck, no,' said Ax. 'I spend my life managing people. I come back here, I want to switch off. We have a cleaner three times a week because if we didn't, with the best will in the world, the place would get disgusting. Other than that we do our own chores. I don't know what anyone sees in domestic servants, it's a crap idea.'

'That's not exactly what I meant.'

Ax grinned. 'What did you mean? Armed guards?'

'Ax Preston is a very brave man,' said Fergal, somewhat sternly. 'That's part of the legend, an' I don't doubt it's the truth. But there's Fiorinda to think of. Fockin' Jaysus God, what if you was to come back here one day an' find her raped an' murdered? Would ye not be better with a few of yer barmy army fellers around?'

Brixton is my village, thought Ax. I run SW2 as my private fief. I don't need guards at my door when I own the neighbourhood. But Fergal probably didn't catch the last issue of Weal7 ... and one day, yeah, maybe this shit situation will become too dangerous. It'll be time to get out, and take my friends with me. Hope I don't miss the moment. He smiled. 'The day we need to be protected from our neighbours is the day we quit.'

'Aye. Right so. But suppose you find out it's time to quit half an hour too late?'

Ax shrugged. 'Insh'allah. Please, make yourself at home. Sit down.'

The Irishman came over and peered at the jigsaw, which was a National Trust classic, featuring about fifty different varieties of British sheep. Fiorinda had bought it for them.

'You like sheep?'

'Very keen.'

'Hm,' said Fergal. He dropped the shoulder pack he was carrying and sat on a couch. His complexion had a dull, magenta cast today, and he moved with the deliberation of an old man, or a painfully sober drunk. 'How d'yer Islamic backers feel, about you and yer man -- ' He nodded significantly towards the bedroom door. 'Do they not find that a wee bit hard to take?'

'Jaysus fockin' God, Fergal. Don't be afraid to ask an awkward question.'

'I'm just trying to get a clear picture.'

'I think they might find the video hard to take,' said Ax, 'so we'll probably hold back on that, until we're really strapped for cash.'

'Fockin' wind-up merchants. Fock it. I knew that was a big leg pull.'

'Sure you did ... Fergal, I converted to Islam to end the separatist war in Yorkshire.' Ax rifled the pieces and picked out a fragment of shaggy-brown big sheep. No, it's a piece of rock. 'They knew what they were getting. Some of the Faithful are appalled that I perform on stage with a stringed instrument: but they'll live with it, because I'm their warrior prince. I don't pretend to be conventionally devout, I behave with reasonable decorum in public, and it works. The leaders of English Islam are in this for the long haul. They see themselves heading for a golden age, England as an enlightened, multi-ethnic Islamic Caliphate. I'm a move on the board, a step on the way. They're not homophobic, they even believe in civil rights for women, and they don't give a toss for my dissolute lifestyle, if I serve their purpose.' All true. It was also true that Ax's conversion had been genuine, but he didn't see why he had to discuss that.

'Ye know, I've never known a woman to really enjoy a ménage à trois. They put up with it if they have to, but they're naturally monogamous. Are ye sure she's happy?'

'Fergal.' Mr Preston was beginning to lose patience. 'I find it hard to believe that the Irish government sent you over here just to investigate my sex life.'

'Fock. I'm not working for the government.'

'So who are you working for? The Dublin chapter of the CIA?'

Footsteps on the stairs. The cat, who had partly settled, roused again and stared at the door. Sage came in; Fiorinda was behind him. 'Hi, Fergal,' said Sage, 'sorry, Ax, we should have called. I had to go and haul Fiorinda out of the DETR.'

'Environment, Transport and the Regions,' said Ax to Fergal, politely. 'The government department we mostly have to deal with. It's okay, the stew's taken no harm. I'll put the couscous on to steam now.'

'I'll do it,' said Fiorinda, quickly.

People who have a lot of pain and suppressed anger in them are often 'tactless': Ax had noticed this. As much as they want to please you, as much as they know they're self-destructing, the little back-bites, the totally unnecessary comments will come tripping out. Fergal Kearney, poor devil, was well known for his terrible habit of saying the wrong thing. But this was different. Even at the San, Ax had felt that this was a man with a plan. The Irishman ate sparingly, fortified himself with several glasses of red wine and went on probing, crudely but thoroughly. He was sounding them out, like a political refugee indeed, dropping references, watching for reactions, testing the ground. He also tried hard to make up to Fiorinda for his faux pas the other night, but she wasn't having any. She hardly spoke, and disappeared to the kitchen whenever she had the slightest excuse.

Fiorinda loaded the dishwasher (a very green dishwasher, but Ax refused to live without one). The three men moved to the couches by the stove, with a new bottle of wine. Giving Fergal Kearney spirits would be outright murder, but you had to accept that he needed his drug, in some form, beyond the point of no return.

'So,' said Ax, 'did we pass? Now can you tell us who you're working for?'

'I told yer,' said Fergal, 'I'm working fer the Rock and Roll Reich, Ax. If yez'll have me.' He gave them his sweet, broken grin. 'Be easy, I'm not planning to make a move on yer girlfriend. But I've fallen for her, that's the truth, an' I've parted company with the Playboys -- don't know if you heard. Me life's near at an end. Why should I not follow the gleam? I've nothin' better to do.'

He picked up his glass, drank, and set it down half full. 'You know, it's a funny thing. The first time a doctor gave me a death sentence, I was terrible upset. I'd lie awake nights, grieving. Now it's on me, and I can't be focked to worry about it.'

This was chilling. Fergal was maybe ten, at most fifteen years older than they were themselves: and he was dying. He had been a sick man for years, but now the marks of the last straight were unmistakable.

'Yeah,' said Ax, after a moment. 'That's half the story. And the rest?'

'Aye, the rest.' The Irishman looked at Ax uneasily. 'You was saying, it's time to ferget conventional politics: concentrate on the culture, the lifestyle choices. Control the mob, and let the mob control the bastards in the suits. I hear ye have the army and the polis eating out of your hand an' all ... An' that's well and good, in your hands, becuz you're only using this classic game plan fer peace and preservation of all that's good in the modern world. But there's other people besides yourself, Ax, that sees this fockin' cascade of disasters as a golden opportunity -- '

He broke off as Fiorinda crossed the room. Ax and Sage noted with approval that he'd waited for the third member of the Triumvirate to return before getting serious. Tactless maybe, but the Irishman isn't stupid. Fiorinda sat on the end of the couch where Ax and Sage were sitting. Fergal nodded to himself, and looked hard at his glass, but did not touch it. 'Mr Dictator, ye've got a problem.'

'I have several,' said Ax. 'Could you be more specific?'

'Aye, mm. How well d'you know yer Prime Minister? Mr David Sale?'

Oh shit. Here it is, whatever 'it' is. Here comes trouble.

'We have a good working relationship,' said Ax, sedately.

Fergal nodded, still with the air of someone weighing his words very carefully, hesitating over every step. 'But yez don't know him personally?'

'I wouldn't say he's a personal friend. No.'

'Did ye know he's a smack addict?8'

Sage grinned. 'Yeah. He's a vegetarian an' all. We try to be broadminded.'

'It's not funny, Sage,' said Fergal, reproachfully.

'Addiction's a big word,' said Ax. I know David's taken to using heroin a little. But that's not really a problem, Fergal. Personally, I don't like it: but it's not a guilty secret.'

'Aye, well. What if I was to tell yez he was getting into something worse?'

Fergal reached for his bag, took out an envelope and drew from it several sheets of paper. He laid them on the coffee table that stood between the couches. A succession of lo-rez monochrome images: groups of seemingly naked human figures cavorting in a dark background. Some of the heads were circled and highlighted. Ax picked up the sheets, one after another. The face that was best enhanced, recognisable in each of the images, was clearly the face of the English Prime Minister.

'What is this about?' he asked, in a tone of cold reserve.

'This is about the Celtics,' said Fergal grimly. 'The folks that used to be called "Ancient Britons" in your country.' He touched one of the pictures. 'There's a lot of this caper goes on in Ireland now. The acceptable side of it, the pilgrimages to the High Places, the feasts and the bonfires, is somethen' they're saying we never really left behind. They're saying, this is religion returning to a state of nature, an' the Catholic hierarchy, fer what their opinion's worth, says it's fine and dandy. Maybe so, an' maybe ye're going to tell me the English Cabinet is welcome to practise Pagan sacrifices, along with takin' hard drugs. But however that may be, according to my information, yer Mr Sale has progressed to the harder stuff.'

'What d'you mean?'


'You mean, real magic?' said Sage, taking up the pictures and frowning at them.

'I don't know what yez understands by that,' said Fergal, after a pause for thought. 'I think the blood-sacrifice would be real. An' effective, in that they get closer to what they are asking for, which is the dark ages. How real do yez want it?'

Pagan animal sacrifice was one of the problems that kept Ax awake at nights. The hardline Celtics insisted they had a right to practise their religion, and it was difficult for him to deny them that right while trying to avoid an open split. He had to leave it to the campground councils; he had to leave it to the hippies themselves to condemn the bloodthirsty extremists. But it was definitely not okay for the PM to go cavorting around the bonfires. The sacrifices were still seriously illegal. The fact that they happened, inside and outside the Counterculture: the fact that there were secret networks of punters who gathered for these blood-daubed raves, was a shocking scandal with the English public. Of course it couldn't possibly be true. David wouldn't be such an idiot! Then the real import of the pictures hit him, and his blood ran cold.

It doesn't have to be true. My God.

'Are you trying to tell me these are genuine snapshots of the English Prime Minister attending a so called "Celtic" ceremony?'


'Oh, for heaven's sake!' Ax dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. 'Give me a break. We get stories like this all the time. I can see by looking at them the images have been faked to hell. I don't know who sold you this, but this isn't evidence!'

'I niver said anything about "evidence",' said Fergal, with dignity. 'I should think a public enquiry's the last thing ye'd be wanting. I said a problem.' He stared hard at the Triumvirate, as if still trying to decide if he could trust them. 'I can't tell yez how I got hold of these. I don't precisely know where they came from, meself. But the pictures aren't all. According to me informants there's a place that yer Mr Sale knows of, where the fun goes beyond killin' animals, an' I can tell yez the where and when.'

They stared back at him, straight-faced. 'I don't believe you,' said Ax.

Fergal nodded. 'Aye. I can understand that. An' I can understand how ye'll feel about the messenger. But ye had to be told ... Ye're not alone, Ax. I'm a sad old drunk, but everything I said the other night's the truth. I have the greatest admiration for yer achievement, and I'm not the only one. There's a whole world out there, wanting to believe Ax Preston's England isn't going to collapse into a pile of shite.'

'That's nice to know.'

'I was coming over to yez anyway. I wisht I hadn't had to bring this. Or I wisht you had laughed in my face an' said it was a pack of fockin'nonsense. But I see that's not how it is. An' now I'll leave the matter.' He stood up, delving in his pack again. 'Didn't bring me harp, I had a feelin' no one would ask me to play. But here's a present from Ireland ... I couldn't carry much,' he added shyly. 'I tried to think what yez'd really be missing.' He put a gift-wrapped package beside the envelope and glanced diffidently at Fiorinda, who hadn't said a word through the whole exchange. 'Are they good to yez, these two? Jaysus, I hope they are.'

'Oh yes,' said the rock and roll brat, raising cool, merciless grey eyes. 'They take me for walks, and I have my own bowl with my name on it and everything.'

Ax and Sage went down to see Fergal out. They came back and stood considering their babe. She seemed to be okay. 'How about a guinea pig?' said Sage to Ax.

'People speak highly of those big furry spiders,' said Ax. 'Apparently they can be very companionable.'


'But what do you think of him?' said Ax, sitting down again. 'Truly?'

'I think he's genuine,' said Fiorinda. 'He puts my back up, but I think he means well and he really wants to join your rock and roll band. I hope to God somebody's using him to deliver loony disinformation ... But I think Fergal himself is fine. Of course I could be wrong.'

'You could be, but you're not often. Well. Let's see what we've got.'

He opened the parcel. They had three cans of Diet Coke, a cellophane package of black peppercorns, and a bottle of genuine, hundred per cent agave, Mexican tequila.

Of all the countries subjected to the Internet Commissioners quarantine, in the wake of the Ivan/lara disaster, the three nations of Mainland Britain suffered most, and England worst of all, having neither Scotland's connections with Scandinavia (where quarantine had already been lifted); or much benefit from the smuggling across the Irish sea. They'd lost not only e-commerce and financial services, but a crippling amount of their surviving foreign trade. In the midst of a global economic crash, with fuel wildly expensive, the maze of anti-virus regulations had been the final straw. They laughed. England was in more need of machine parts than peppercorns. But even after the news he'd brought, it was impossible not to be touched by Fergal's bounty.

'I don't think we should do anything until morning,' said Fiorinda. 'I'm going to practise. Soundproofing on or off?' She often practised the piano late at night. It was the only way to find decent, solid time, and she liked the echoing secrecy of those hours.

'Off,' said Sage.

'Mind if we join you?' asked Ax.

'As long as you don't talk.'

Fiorinda played Bach, rapidly and carefully, frequently the same phrase over and over, obsessively smoothing out the kinks. Ax lay with his head in Sage's lap, watching her hands in the pearly glow of ATP lamplight. This room, with the piano, still their spare bedroom (are we ever going to get that guest room sorted?) was Fiorinda's territory. Her favourite dresses hung on the walls, other treasures of her life were scattered around: the red cowboy boots he'd bought her when they were first together. Her guitars (including that awful battered old acoustic). It wasn't easy to give Fiorinda presents; those orange trees on the terrace, a triumph for Sage, but if you gave her something and it came to live in here, you knew you were doing well ... Most of Ax's guitars were in Taunton. Will I ever move them up here? And if I move them, will Jordan see that as my final betrayal of the band?

Fiorinda was right. Don't start flailing around in the middle of the night. Wait, sleep on it. But he couldn't relax. He kept hearing Fergal's question again. No, Ax did not know David Sale. He had sometimes felt a great respect for the man. This was the chief executive who had allowed the Deconstruction Tour to happen, without escalating the violence. Who had kept his head when Pigsty Liver was running riot; who had kept the regular troops out of the fighting in Yorkshire ... Who had created, let it be said, the situation that had brought Ax to power. But Ax had kept his distance. He had never wanted to be in David Sale's confidence, because there was too much dirty water under that bridge. There was the question of how far the PM had been involved in the Massacre Night conspiracy. There were other questions ... Things Ax had preferred not to know.

He thought of their last meeting, at the artshow. David had been with a group of glamset green-revolutionaries, dressed in expensive 'Celtic' fashion. Ax had been amused, recalling the Think Tank era, when the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary had been so thrilled to be hanging out with rockstars. That's David. He has to be in with the in-crowd. That's his thing.


He'd brought the photographs to the music room, not meaning to look at them again, but ... He sat up and studied the images: turned them over and read the handwritten notes on the backs of the sheets. Dates, locations. Fuck.

Ax pushed back his hair, rubbing his temples with calloused fingertips.

'I'm going downstairs, try and send a couple of faxes. I won't be long.'

Fiorinda went on playing. Shortly, she turned her head. Sage was watching her, hands in his pockets. He was wearing the mask less and less but the hands still had to be hidden, if at all possible. One long leg crossed over the other; a little sickle-shaped indentation by the left corner of his mouth, picked out very clearly by the lamplight. He will be fifty, she thought, with a shock. He will be this big, thin, middle-aged bloke, extremely used to getting his own way.

'What is it?'

'Fee, can you still do that trick of yours, with fire?'

Fiorinda's grandmother practises witchcraft. Sage had accidentally discovered, (or been allowed to discover, he wasn't sure which), that Fiorinda could do some strange things herself. She'd made it clear that she'd decided to bury her talent, or whatever you called it. He was not allowed to tell anyone. Not even Ax.

'You mean like this?'

She stopped playing and held out her right hand, cupped palm upwards, as if reaching to take something from the empty air. A dot like molten copper quivered there, and then a leaf-shaped flame: flickering red and orange. He thought he could feel the heat ... But the brain loves to be fooled.

'Is that an illusion?'

She moved her hand so the flame curled in her palm connected with the corner of a sheet of music that was lying on top of the piano.

The illusion continued to convince his senses.

'Oh, Fiorinda -- '

She resumed playing, having used her fingers to crush out the miniature blaze. A wisp of smoke and the smell of scorched paper remained. 'Look. You've had genetic engineering done to you, that means you can pump out energy from your fingertips, enough to light a room or boil an egg. Ax has a piece of etched silicon or something in his head, that means he can tell me all the postcodes in Billericay, and exactly what the Ministry of Defence plans to do in the event of a nerve gas strike, without pausing for thought. I have something weird in my wiring that randomly happened, that I was born with. What's the difference? I don't see a difference. I don't know why you are raising the subject. I don't see how what I can do has any connection with loony neo-Celtic ritual blood sacrifices.'

The word Fergal used was magic, he thought. But he wasn't looking for a fight.

'Of course not. Never said there was. You have to tell Ax, that's all.'

'Yes, but not now,' said Fiorinda, cunningly. 'Not right now. Let's get over David and the blood-cult thing. Then I'll tell him. As soon as there's a good moment. Honest.'


  1. 'Virtual artworks' -- free-standing hologram reproductions, fantasy-tech version of digitised reproduction. At time of writing, I knew the high-culture version of this game couldn't be far off: the National Gallery is digitising its masterpieces this year, for the first time. Note also the Led Zep reference (Stairway To Heaven) [...back to main text]
  2. 'Topsy' -- was the nickname of William Morris, Utopian activist, a leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement, originally trained as an architect. NB, the CO2 notion is genuine, I mean, as a proposal for flood protection- [...back to main text]
  3. The full text of this review is given in Castles Made Of Sand. It is fearlessly smug, mean and snidey -- implying that Chairman Ax is not (yet) running a totalitarian state. [...back to main text]
  4. Good car to drive, after a war ... Bob Dylan, Talking World War III Blues (The Freewheeling Bob Dylan). But you knew that, didn't you, pop-pickers. [...back to main text]
  5. Chrissie Hynde, in an interview for Interview magazine, summer 2001, said, "As long as you can sit on a shop doorstep eating pizza, if you feel like it, you have not lost the game of life." Fiorinda's remark is a free paraphrase of this wise rockstar's reflection on the celebrity game. [...back to main text]
  6. Matthew Arnold, Victorian poet and educational reformer, is the source of the concept of culture as "Sweetness And Light", from his highly influential Culture and Anarchy 1869. I'm not sure what he would have thought of Jimi Hendrix's music as a crucial component for the building of a healthy democratic state. [...back to main text]
  7. Weal, (in the Bold As Love series the Rock and Roll Reich's most respected political vidzine), recalls "Commonweal", the paper founded by William Morris for the Socialist League. [...back to main text]
  8. Did ye know he's a smack addict? Castles Made Of Sand is a fantasy about now, so what can this mean? Does it mean I actually believe my Prime Minister is addicted to some kind of dangerous and soul-destroying drug? You bet I do. [...back to main text]

...continues in the print edition

© Gwyneth Jones 2002, 2003.

Gwyneth Jones's Castles Made of Sand was published in July 2002 by Gollancz (ISBN 0575073950 for the mass market paperback; November 2003).

Castles Made of Sand
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