Some Strange Desire

by Ian McDonald


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18 November

On the third day of the jhash, I went to see Mother, a forty five-minute train journey past red-brick palazzo-style hypermarkets under Heathrow’s sound-footprint.

When the great wave of early-Fifties slum clearance swept the old East End out into the satellite New Towns, it swept Mother and his little empire with it. Three years after the bombing stopped, the Blitz really began, he says. After three hundred years of metropolis, he felt a change of environment would do him good. He is quite the born-again suburbanite; he cannot imagine why we choose to remain in the city. With his two sisters, our aunts, he runs a discreet and lucrative brothel from a detached house on a large estate. The deviations of suburbia differ from, but are no less deviations than, the deviations of the city, and are equally exploitable.

As Mother opened the door to me an elderly man in a saggy black latex suit wandered down from upstairs, saw me, apologized, and vanished into the back bedroom.

“It’s all right dear, he’s part of the family,” Mother shouted up. “Really you know, I should stop charging him. He’s been coming twenty years, boy and man. Every Tuesday, same thing. Dresses up in the rubber suit and has your Aunt Ursa sit on his face. Happily married; he’s invited us to his silver wedding anniversary party; it’s a nice thought but I don’t think it’s really us, do you?”

To the eye they were three forty-something slightly-but-not-too-tarty women, the kind you see pushing shopping trolleys around palazzo-style hypermarkets, or in hatchbacks arriving at yoga classes in the local leisure center rather than the kind that congregate at the farthest table in bars to drink vodka and laugh boorishly.

My mother was born the same year that Charles II was restored to the monarchy.

We kissed on the mouth, exchanging chemical identifications, tongue to tongue. I made no attempt to mask my feelings; anxiety has a flavor that cannot be concealed.

“Love, what is it? Is it that pimp again? Is he giving bother?” He sniffed deeply. “No. It’s Cassiopeia, isn’t it? Something’s happened to him. The Law? Darling, we’ve High Court judges in our pockets. No, something else. Worse. Oh no. Oh dear God no.”

Chemical communication is surer and less ambiguous than verbal. Within minutes my aunts, smelling the alarm on the air, had cut short their appointments with their clients and congregated in the back room where no non-tesh was ever permitted. In the deep wing-chair drawn close to the gas heater sat my grandmother, seven hundred years old and almost totally submerged into the dark, mind wandering interminably and with death the only hope of release from the labyrinth of his vast rememberings. His fingers moved in his lap like the legs of stricken spiders. We spoke in our own language, sharp-edged whispers beneath the eyes of the hahndahvi in their five Cardinal Points up on the picture rail.

Jhash. It was made to be whispered, that word.

I suggested medical assistance. There were prominent doctors among the ul-goi. Sexual inclinations do not discriminate. What with the advances goi medicine had made, and the finest doctors in the country, surely something . . .

“It must be concern for your sister has temporarily clouded your judgment,” whispered Aunt Lyra, “otherwise I cannot imagine you could be so stupid as to consider delivering one of us into the hands of the goi.”

My mother hushed him with a touch to his arm.

“He could have put it a bit more subtly, love, but he’s right. It would be no problem to recruit an ul-goi doctor, but doctors don’t work in isolation. They rely upon a massive edifice of researchers, technicians, laboratories, consultants: how long do you think it would be before some goi discovered the truth about Cassiopeia?”

“You would let my sister, your daughter die, rather than compromise security?”

“Do not ask me to answer questions like that. Listen up. One of our regulars here is an ul-goi lawyer. Just to make conversation I asked him once what our legal position was. This is what he told me: we may think and talk and look like humans, but we are not human. And, as nonhumans, we are therefore the same as animals — less than animals; most animals enjoy some protection under the law, but not us. They could do what they liked to us, they could strip us of all our possessions, jail us indefinitely, use us to experiment on, gas us, hunt us down one by one for sport, burn us in the street, and in the eyes of the law it would be no different from killing rats. We are not human, we are not under the protection of the law. To compromise our secrecy is to threaten us all.”

“He is dying and I want to know what to do.”

“You know what to do.” The voice startled me. It was like the voice of an old, corroded mechanism returning to life after long inactivity. “You know what to do,” repeated my grandmother, stepping through a moment of lucidity into this last decade of the millennium. “Can I have taught you so badly, or is it you were such poor pupils? Père Teakbois the Balancer demanded jhash of us in return for our enormously long lives, but Saint Semillia of the Mercies bargained a ransom price. Blood. The life is in the blood; that life may buy back a life.”

Of course I knew the story. I even understood the biological principle behind the spurious theology. A massive blood transfusion might stimulate the disrupted immune system into regenerating itself, in a similar sense to the way our bodies rebuild themselves by using goi sex cells as a template. I had known the answer to jhash for as long as I had known of jhash itself: why had I refused to accept it and looked instead for, yes, ludicrous, yes, dangerous alternatives that could not possibly work?

Because Saint Semillia of the Mercies sells his dispensations dear.

Mother had given me a shoeboxful of equipment, most of it obsolete stuff from the last century when the last case of jhash had occurred. She did not tell me the outcome. Either way, I was not certain I wanted to know. In the house on Shantallow Mews I ran a line into my arm and watched the Six O’clock News while I pumped out two plastic bags. Internecine warfare in the Tory party. Some of the faces I knew, intimately. The blood seemed to revive Cassiopeia but I knew it could only be temporary. I could never supply enough: after only two pints I was weak and trembling. All I could do was hold the sickness at bay. I took the icon of Saint Semillia of the Mercies down from the wall, asked it what I should do. His silence told me nothing I did not already know myself. Out there. They are few, they are not perfect, but they exist, and you must find them. I tletched, dressed in black leotard, black tights, black mini, black heels, wrapped it all under a duster coat and went down to the Cardboard Cities.

What is it your philosophers teach? That we live in the best of all possible worlds? Tell that to the damned souls of the cardboard cities in the tunnels under your railway stations and underpasses. Tesh have no such illusions. It has never been a tenet of our faith that the world should be a good place. Merely survivable.

Cloaked in a nimbus of hormonal awe, I went down. You would smell the piss and the beer and the smoke and the dampness and something faint and semiperceived you cannot quite recognize. That thing you cannot recognize is what is communicated most strongly to me. It is despair. Derelicts, burned out like the hulls of Falklands’ warships, waved hallucinatory greetings to me as I swirled past, coat billowing in the warm wet wind that blew across the wastelands. Eyes moved in cardboard shelters, cardboard coffins, heads turned, angered by the violation of their degradation by one who manifestly did not share it. When it is all you possess, you treasure even degradation. Figures gathered around smudge fires, red-eyed from the smoke, handing round hand-rolled cigarettes. Where someone had scraped enough money for batteries there was dance music from boom boxes. They would not trouble me. My pheromones made me a shadowy, godlike figure moving on the edge of the darkness.

Where should I go? I had asked.

Where no one will be missed, my mother had replied.

I went to the viaduct arches, the motorway flyovers, the shop doorways, the all-nite burger-shops, the parking lots and playgrounds. I went down into the tunnels under the stations. Trains ground overhead, carrying the double-breasted suit men and cellphone women back to suburbs ending in “ing” or “which,” to executive ghettos with names like Elmwood Grove and Manor Grange. The tunnels boomed and rang, drops of condensation fell sparkling in the electric light from stalactites seeping from the expansion joints in the roof. I paused at the junction of two tunnels. Something in the air, a few vagrant lipid molecules carried in the air currents beneath the station.

How will I know them? I had asked.

You will know them, my mother had said.

The trail of pheromones was fickle, more absent than present. It required the utmost exercise of my senses to follow it. It led me down clattering concrete stairways and ramps, under striplights and dead incandescent bulbs, down, underground. As I was drawn deeper, I dissolved my aura of awe and wove a new spell: allure. Certain now. Certain. The lost children in their cribs barely acknowledged my presence; the air smelled of shit and ganja.

She had found a sheltered corner under a vent that carried warmth and the smell of frying food from some far distant point of the concourse. An outsize Aran sweater — much grimed and stretched — was pulled down over her hunched-up knees. She had swaddled herself in plastic refuse sacks, pulled flattened cardboard boxes that had held washing machines and CD midisystems in around her.

I enveloped her in a shroud of pheromones. I tried to imagine what she might see, the tall woman in the long coat, more vision than reality, demon, angel, standing over her like judgment. How could she know it was my pheromones, and not her own free will, that made her suddenly want more than anything, anything she had ever wanted in her life, to bury her face between my nylon-smooth thighs? I knelt down, took her chin in my hand. She looked into my eyes, tried to lick my fingers. Her face was filthy. I bent toward her and she opened her mouth to me. She ran her tongue around the inside of my lips; whimpering, she tried to ram it down my throat.

And I was certain. Truth is in the molecules. I had tasted it.

I extended a hand and she took it with luminous glee. She would have done anything, anything for me, anything, if I would only take her away from these tunnels and the stink of piss and desperation, back to my apartment: I could do whatever I wanted, anything.

The corridors shook to the iron tread of a train.

She loved me. Loved me.

With a cry, I snatched my hand from the touch of her fingers, turned, walked away, coat flapping behind me, heels ringing like shots. Faster. Faster. I broke into a run. Her calls pursued me through the tunnels, come back come back, I love you, why did you go, I love you . . .

I rode the underground into the take-away-curry-and-tins- of-lager hours. We are not human, my mother told me from every poster and advertisement, we cannot afford the luxuries of human morality. Saint Semillia of the Mercies smiled upon me. I rode the trains until the lights went out, one by one, in the stations behind me, and came home at last to Shantallow Mews.

The house looked and smelled normal. There was nothing to see. From the outside. He had broken in through a rear window and trashed a path through the rooms where we entertained the goi. Finding the locked door, he had kicked his way into Cassiopeia’s room.

The pimp had done a thorough and professional job of terror. Empty glasses and cups of cold tea shattered, a half-completed jigsaw of the Royal Family a thousand die-cut pieces scattered across the floor, magazines torn in two, the radio-cassette smashed in by a heel. Shredded cassette tape hung in swaths from the lights and stirred in the draft from the open door where I stood. The metal stand by the bedside was overturned; the blood, my blood, was splashed and daubed across the walls.

Cassiopeia was in the corner by the window, shivering and dangerously pale from shock. Under the duvet he clutched the icons of the five hahndahvi and a kitchen knife. Bruises purpled down the side of his face, he flinched from my gentlest touch.

“He said he’d be back,” my sister whispered. “He said unless we worked for him, he’d be back again. And again. And again. Until we got wise.”

I made him comfortable on the sofa, cleaned the blood from the walls, made good the damage. Then I went to the never-quite-forgotten place under the floorboards and unearthed the hru-tesh.

Saint Semillia, the price of your mercies!


This story copyright © 1993 by Ian McDonald. Used by permission. All rights reserved.