Isolation story: (13) We Could Be Sisters

One of my best stories.

The character Jessica Ferne previously appeared in the story ‘The Turing Test’ which I included as the third of these ‘isolation stories’.

The artist, Julian Smart, also appears as the major character in another story of mine, ‘Creation’, which is in my collection, Spring Tide.

I like stories that link together. Tammy also appeared in two other stories. One was called ‘Tammy Pendant’ – I incorporated it into my novel Marcher. It caused a minor controversy when it was published in Asimov’s SF in 2004, and contributed to the magazine being withdrawn from school libraries in one of the Midwestern states, I forget which. The other story with Tammy in it was called ‘Poppyfields’ and is included in my Peacock Cloak collection.

‘We Could Be Sisters’ also first appeared in Asimov’s in 2004, and is included in my first short story collection, The Turing Test.

We Could Be Sisters

Nature is profligate.  All possible worlds exist.  In one of them there was once an art gallery in Red Lion Street, London WC1, and its manager was a woman called Jessica Ferne.  On one particular grey November day, when Jessica was thirty-three, she spent the morning in her office as usual.  She made phone calls about her next exhibition and experimented on her PC with images of the art objects that she planned to exhibit, trying out different arrangements and juxtapositions.  Then at lunchtime she put on her jacket, gave some instructions to her secretary, and walked through her gallery and out onto the street. As ever each exhibit stood alone – a pair of mummified hands, a flashing light, an assemblage of human bones – each one contained and separated from the rest of the world by its frame, its label, its pedestal.

Outside an electric cleaning vehicle went by and then some lawyers in robes.  Red Lion Street was part of a subscriber area, but at the end of it were the open streets of London, where anyone could go.  The boundary between the two areas was marked by a gate with a uniformed security guard in attendance.  As Jessica approached it an elderly woman tried to walk in through the gate and it started bleeping.  The guard stepped forward and politely refused her entry.

‘But I am a subscriber,’ she complained.  ‘There’s some mistake.’

A jet fighter passed high overhead – it was part of the city’s ever-present shield against aerial attack.  The guard suggested to the elderly lady that perhaps her clearance was out of date and that she needed to check with the network.  Meanwhile Jessica passed through the gate in the other direction, unimpeded, and there she was, in High Holborn, in the open area.  She was not frightened exactly but she quickened her pace and, without even thinking about it, she began to monitor the people around her, checking for sudden movements or suspicious glances.

* * *

When Jessica was a child, growing up with her adoptive parents in Highgate, you could travel from one side of London to another, on a bus, on foot, in a car.  But Jessica was thirty-three now and the map of London had become a patchwork of subscriber areas, reserved for those who could pay, and open areas in between for the rest. 

Jessica lived in a subscriber area in Docklands: the Docklands Secure Community.  It was managed by a syndicate of subscription companies called LSN, which now controlled almost all the subscriber areas in London apart from a few exceptionally expensive ones for the seriously rich.  And Jessica had just walked out of another LSN area, the West Central Safe Street Zone, where her art gallery was located. Within the Zones, burglaries and street crime were almost at zero.  Beggars, illegal immigrants, known criminals and suspected trouble-makers were all excluded.  Everyone you met had been checked out.  And there were TV cameras on every street and LSN detectives constantly on patrol. 

‘It’s not like the good old days,’ said the LSN ad in the Tube.  ‘It’s much, much better.’

The syndicate even ran special trains between the Zones, which didn’t stop at the stations in between.  There was even talk of special freeways.

* * *

Outside, in the open areas, things were different.  Violent crime was commonplace and in some neighbourhoods there was more-or-less constant low level warfare between rival gangs and religious groupings.   Holborn, where Jessica was now, was not an especially rough area – LSN was actually in the process of negotiating its absorption into the West Central Zone and, in preparation, had already begun augmenting policing there with its own security force – but still, as soon as you passed the gate you could feel the difference.  There were beggars for one thing and there were street performers who did not confine themselves, as in the Zones, to designated Street Entertainment Areas.

Today there was a pair of jugglers.  They were very adept, making their spinning clubs pass between them so smoothly that it gave the impression of a constant stream, as if the clubs were flowing of their own accord round some kind of force field.  If either juggler had faltered for an instant the pattern and the illusion would collapse, but neither of them ever did. The appearance of smooth flow was created by precise rhythm, thought Jessica, and the illusion of weightlessness depended on the law of gravity to bring the clubs back to the jugglers’ hands. These little paradoxes pleased her.  She smiled and tossed a coin into their hat.  A sharp-eyed beggar noticed this largesse and at once shot out his hand.

‘Any spare change, love?  I haven’t eaten yet today.’

Jessica looked away, quickening her pace.

‘Go on, surprise yourself!’ said the next beggar along, this time a woman.

‘Sorry, no change,’ said Jessica.

She noticed the woman beggar had extremely fine blonde hair, very like her own.

High up in the cold blue sky, a surveillance drone passed above them.

* * *

Jessica was having lunch in a Laotian restaurant with an artist called Julian Smart.  He had told her that, on principle, he only ever ate outside the safe zones.  Inside, apparently, the food had no flavour.  He was about her own age, currently enjoying a rapidly growing reputation in the art world, and he was very good looking.  Last night Jessica had been so excited about this meeting that she’d not been able to sleep.  It was true that this morning in the gallery that feeling had vanished and she’d felt strangely indifferent, unable to connect at all with her previous night’s excitement, but now once again she felt as excited as an infatuated teenager.

‘Jessica!  Hi!’

He kissed her.  She trembled.  He seemed ten times more beautiful than she had remembered him, passionate and fiery.  She could not believe that he was interested in her.  She could not believe that she had ever doubted her interest in him.

But Jessica was exceptionally ambivalent in matters of the heart. She had never had a sustained relationship with a man of her own age, though she had several affairs with older men, and had recently ended a two-year arrangement with a motorcycle courier ten years her junior, who she had taken in to live with her.  Equality was the hardest thing, and yet what she longed for the most. 

They ordered fish soup and braised quail.  He showed her some pictures of his latest work.  It consisted of a sequence of images, the first of which was a banal photograph of a couple feeding pigeons in a park.  In succeeding stages, Julian had first drained the scene of colour and then gradually disassembled it into small numbered components like the parts in a child’s construction kit.  The final image showed the pieces lined up for assembly: rows and rows of grey pigeons numbered 1 to 45 on a grey plastic stem, grey plastic flowers (50 to 62), grey plastic trees (80 to 82), grey plastic hands and heads and feet…

‘You’ll have to come and see it though,’ he said as she leafed though the pictures.   ‘Come over and see it.  Come up and look at my etchings.  We can go for a drink or something.’

Wanting to share something of herself in return, she told him about the jugglers she had watched on the way.

‘I found it a bit disturbing,’ she said, ‘I found that I’d rather watch the two of them than look at any of the stuff we’ve got in the gallery at the moment.  They had something that most artists now have lost: style, virtuosity, defiance… Do you know what I mean?’

The soup arrived.  No, he didn’t know what she meant at all.  He suggested using the jugglers as a basis for a video piece, or making them into one of his plastic kits – a row of grey clubs numbered 1-10, and a chart to show what colours to paint them – or getting the jugglers themselves to stand in the gallery and perform as a sort of living objet trouvé.  And then this reminded him of plan of his to stage an exhibition in which the museum attendants themselves were the sole exhibits, with nothing to guard but themselves.

He laughed loudly and, with that laugh, he finally lost her: it had such a callous sound.  He no longer looked beautiful to her.  She saw in his eyes a kind of greedy gleam and it occurred to her that Julian Smart couldn’t really see her at all except only as a pleasing receptacle for his own words.  She wondered how she could have ever failed to notice that greedy gleam and how once again she had managed to deceive herself into thinking she had found a fellow spirit. 

As she headed back to Red Lion Street she asked herself why this happened so often.  She thought perhaps it came from being adopted, raised by beings whose blood was strange to her, and hers to them, so that she had learnt from the beginning to work at imagining a connection that wasn’t really there.  But then again it might just be the world she lived in.  All the art in her gallery seemed to mock the possibility of meaning, of connection.  It was all very subversive but without a cause.  It exposed artifice but put nothing in its place.

Even the jugglers, when she saw them again, seemed weary, as if they longed to let the clubs fall to the ground and leave them to lie there in peace.

* * *

‘Surprise yourself!’ said the woman beggar, right in front of her.

Jessica gave a little cry of shock, not just because she was startled, though she was, but also because for a moment she felt as if she was looking into a mirror and seeing her own reflection.  But once having collected herself she realised this face was altogether leaner, and had different and deeper lines in it.  She is not like me at all, thought Jessica taking out her purse, except superficially in the hair colour and the eyes.  And the hair was thinner, the eyes more bloodshot.

But the beggar said, ‘We could be sisters couldn’t we?’

Two jet fighters hurtled by above them. 

Jessica pressed bank notes into the beggar’s hands.

* * *

Well I could have a sister, Jessica thought as she hurried back to the gallery.  It’s not impossible. 

She had met her natural mother once, a haggard icy-hearted creature called Liz.

‘Brothers or sisters?’ her mother had said.  ‘You must be joking.  I had my tubes done after you.  No way was I going through that again.’

But Liz could quite well have been lying.  She’d struck Jessica as a woman who spoke and believed whatever seemed at that particular moment to further her own ends.  In that one meeting Liz had given Jessica three different accounts of why she had given Jessica up, discarding each one when Jessica had presented her with contradictory facts she’d read in her file. 

Then again, the files had not mentioned a sister either.

* * *

At six o’clock Jessica went back down Red Lion Street to look for the beggar, but she wasn’t there.  She drove home through North London and lay awake planning to search the homeless hostels and the soup kitchens, all over London if necessary, all over England.  The beggar had a West Country accent she thought.  Like Liz, who came from Bristol.

In the morning, after she’d parked the car, Jessica went down to the end of Red Lion Street again, and again at lunchtime.  She spent half the afternoon in her office in the gallery phoning hostels and charities and welfare agencies, asking how she would go about finding someone she had met in the street.  They all said they couldn’t tell her anything. Jessica could have been anyone after all: a dealer, a blackmailer, a slave trader looking for a runaway.  And anyway Jessica couldn’t even give a name for the woman she was looking for.

She nearly wept with frustration, furious with herself for not finding out more when she met the woman yesterday.  And now it seemed to her that if she could find the blonde beggar again it would be the turning point of her whole life.  That’s no exaggeration, she thought.  If necessary, I really will give the rest of my life to this search.  This is my purpose, this is the quest which I’ve so long wanted to begin. 

When she went down Red Lion Street for the third time, though, the beggar was there again – and this turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  It had really been far too short a time for this to have been a satisfactory life’s quest.  And anyway, when it came down to it, who was the beggar but just some stranger?  Once again, Jessica thought, I’ve blown up a great big bubble of anticipation, and she would have walked away from the whole thing at once had she not known herself well enough to realise that, as soon as she turned her back, she would immediately want to begin again. 

So she made herself go forward, even though she was full of hostility and resentment.

‘We could be sisters?’ she demanded.

The beggar woman looked up, recognising Jessica at once.

‘Yes!’ she exclaimed, and she appealed to her male companion.  ‘Look Jim.  This is the woman I was telling you about.  We could be sisters don’t you reckon?’

 The man glanced at her.

 ‘Yeah,’ he said indifferently, ‘the spitting image…’ 

  Then he really looked.

 ‘Fucking hell, Tamsin!  You’re right.  You could be fucking twins.’

  Jessica felt dizzy, as if she had taken a blow to the head.

 ‘Tamsin?’ she asked.  ‘Tamsin?  Is that your name?’

 ‘Yeah, Tamsin.’

‘Tamsin’s my name too.  My middle name.  The name my mother gave me before she had me adopted.’

 Tamsin the beggar gave a small whistle.

‘We need to talk, don’t we?’ said Jessica.  ‘There’s a coffee shop over there.  Let me buy you some coffee and something to eat.’

‘Coffee and something to eat?’ said the male beggar. ‘Yummy.  Can anyone come?’

‘Fuck off Jim,’ said Tamsin.

A powerful helicopter crossed very low over the street.  It was painted dark green and armed like a tank.

* * *

In the coffee shop Jessica said, ‘Could we really besisters?’

‘No chance,’ said Tamsin, ‘my mum had herself sterilised right after I was born.’

‘But how old are you?’ asked Jessica.

‘Thirty three.’

‘When is your birthday?’

‘April the second,’ said the beggar. ‘What?  What’s the matter?’

 Jessica had gone white.

‘It’s mine too,’ she said.  ‘April the second.  And I’m thirty-three.  We must be twins.’

Tamsin laughed.

‘We’re not you know.’

‘Same name, same birthday, same looks, I’m adopted.  What other explanation can there be?’         

‘I’ve never heard of twins with the same name,’ said Tamsin. 

‘Well no but…’ Jessica was genuinely at a loss. 

‘Haven’t you ever heard of shifters you posh git?’


Jessica had heard of them of course.  She’d never knowingly met one. The word had eerie, uncomfortable connotations. People said shifters moved sideways across time by taking some kind of drug. She’d heard it came in pills they called ‘slip’ or ‘seeds’.  A few years ago there had been something of a moral panic about shifters and there had been talk about how they were a mortal threat to law and to civilisation and to humanity’s whole understanding of its place in space and time.  But oddly people seemed to have rather forgotten about them since then.  It was like flying to the moon, or having conversations with people on the far side of the world: impossible things happened and people soon got used to them (though in the case of shifters there were still those who maintained the whole phenomenon was some sort of elaborate hoax).

I’m a shifter,’ said Tamsin.  ‘I don’t come from this world.  I must have been in a hundred worlds at least.’

‘But if you don’t come from this world how can…?’

Tamsin made an exasperated gesture.  ‘Don’t you get it?  I’m not your twin.  I am you.  You and me were once the same person.’

For some reason Jessica leapt to her feet with a small cry.  Everyone in the coffee shop looked round.  She sat down again.  She stood up. 

‘Give me your phone a minute,’ said Tamsin.

Like most pocket phones at that time, Jessica’s had a security lock which could only be deactivated by her own thumbprint.  Tamsin pressed her thumb on the pad and they watched the little screen light up.

Jessica couldn’t bear to stay still.

‘Let’s go out,’ she said.  ‘Let’s walk in the street.’

*  *  *

The world splits like cells on agar jelly. Just in the short space of time you’ve been reading this, countless new worlds have come into being.  In some of those worlds you’ve tossed this story aside already.  In others you have been interrupted by the phone, or the doorbell, or a jet plane crashing through the ceiling.  But it seems that you – this particular version of you – were one of the ones who carried on reading.

When Tamsin was born, her mother Liz had her placed for adoption.  Tamsin was not a wanted child.  She was the child of a rape for one thing and this did not help, but as a matter of fact she wouldn’t have been wanted anyway, for Liz didn’t have an ounce of maternal feeling in her.  But Liz’s mother and her sister and her brother and the people in the pub where she drank every night, they all told her she was a selfish cow and how could she give up her own flesh and blood?  They all told her they didn’t want anything to do with a woman who would give away a little baby that never asked to be brought into the world.  And all this was not easy for someone like Liz to withstand. 

Time split and in some of its branches, Liz gave way to the pressure and asked for Tamsin to be returned to her, as was her legal right, before the adoption went through.  In other branches Tamsin was adopted by the couple who’d been caring for her since birth, two earnest young doctors who couldn’t have children of their own.  They renamed her Jessica.  Jessica Tamsin Ferne. This is what Tamsin and Jessica worked out between them as they walked in the open streets.

Tamsin had not had an easy time of it.  After getting her back, her mother had grossly neglected her.  One of her mother’s boyfriends had abused her.  In the end the authorities had taken her back into care.  But they left it too late and were unable to settle her anywhere.  She moved between many different foster-homes and residential units, in and around the big social housing project outside Bristol where she had originally lived with Liz.

Jessica on the other hand had been raised in Highgate by the two earnest doctors, who sent her to private schools and took her in the car to ballet classes every Saturday morning and violin lessons on Wednesdays and extra French every second Thursday. 

But once, thirty-three years ago a single baby girl had lain in a crib with these two different futures simultaneously ahead of her.  Not to mention other futures that neither of them knew about.

‘You must come home with me,’ said Jessica.  ‘I’ll phone my work and say I’ve had to go home.’

Tamsin smiled as she listened to Jessica lying to her secretary. When Jessica had finished they looked at each other and burst out laughing, like co-conspirators, both of them noticing how alike they were, how at some deep level they understood one another, whatever their different histories.  And each of them was thinking simultaneously that at last she’d no longer be alone.

Both of them, however, had thought this many times before, if only ever very briefly.  In Jessica’s case she’d thought it for a short while just a few hours previously in the Laotian restaurant with Julian.  And yet Julian hadn’t entered her thoughts, even for a moment, since Tamsin said, ‘We could be sisters’. 

Jessica led the way to her car, but as they turned up Red Lion Street the gate began to bleep, for only Jessica had an LSN card in her pocket.    

‘Excuse me!’ called out the guard.  ‘Can you…’ 

When they turned towards him, each with the same irritated expression, he was speechless.  He knew both of them by sight, for Jessica often walked through his gate and Tamsin often begged outside it, but it had never until now occurred to him to compare them.

* * *

As the guard wouldn’t let Tamsin into the West Central Safe Streets Zone, Jessica had to fetch the car and pick Tamsin up outside it.  There were problems at the other end too.  As a resident subscriber of the Docklands Zone, Jessica was allowed to bring in visitors, but they were still required to show their national ID card at the gate.  Tamsin had no ID of any sort.  She may have been born in Bristol but this didn’t alter the fact that she was an illegal immigrant from another universe.

 So she hid in the luggage compartment of the car, and in that way Jessica smuggled her deviant alter ego through the security barrier within which she herself had, at considerable expense, chosen to live.  She was taking quite a risk in doing so, for the penalty for deliberately violating the LSN security rules was to be automatically barred not only from the Docklands Safe Streets Zone but from all the other LSN Zones in London as well.  So she would lose both her home and her job if she was caught.

An elderly neighbour from two floors up stared at them in the lift: Jessica in her chic outfit and Tamsin in a jumper and jeans which gave off the sickly odour of clothes that have been slept in.  They were both giggly and excited, each in her own way feeling released from a long oppression.

‘People usually call me Jess,’ said Jessica.

‘People usually call me Tammy.’

‘Do you want some wine?’

‘You are so fucking posh aren’t you?’

‘Well you’re so fucking common.  Do you want wine or not?’

‘Yeah great.  Haven’t you got a bloke or kids or nothing?’

‘Nope.  I did have a bloke but I chucked him out.  I never wanted kids.’

‘Me neither.  Like mum.’

Tamsin sipped the wine and looked around.

‘You must be rich!   I bet you’re one of those that go on foreign holidays every year.  Thailand, India… all that…’

‘Well I’ve never been to another world, though.  I can’t even imagine what that’s like.’

‘They’re just the same as this one, except for stupid little things, like the phone boxes are a different colour, or the money looks different, or the estates have different names.  Just stupid little things.  When you start shifting you think you are going to find a place where it will be better, a magical place.  But you soon give that idea up when you’ve done a few shifts.  It’s always the same old shit.  It’s always the bloody same.’

‘So why did you keep doing it?’

Tamsin walked to the doorway of the room and looked out, clutching her wineglass against her body with both hands. 

‘Once you start its hard to stop,’ she said.  ‘You’re not looking to get anywhere any more, not really. It’s the shift itself that’s the thing. All these worlds going by and you’re not in any of them, you’re just falling and falling through them. In the middle of a shift the worlds go by so fast that it’s just a blur.’

  She looked into the kitchen, into the bathroom, into the main bedroom.  Jessica followed her patiently.

‘I’ll tell you a weird thing about shifting, though,’ Tamsin said at length.  ‘You know those little flick-books you can get?  The ones where you flick the pages and it looks like one picture that’s moving? Well, it’s a bit like that. All those blurry worlds sort of merge together and you see something else which isn’t in any of them. And it’s like a huge tree, a massive great tree, but with no roots or leaves or nothing, no ground or sky, just branches growing all the time in the dark, growing and growing, and splitting off from each other all the time as quick as anything…’

She looked into Jessica’s spare bedroom, which had once been the den of Jessica’s motorcycle courier boyfriend, Jeff.

‘And you think if only you could see that tree properly,’ she said. ‘If only you could see it you’d, like, understand.  But it only ever lasts a second or two and the next thing you’re in some other shitty world and you’re thinking, oh crap, now I’m all on my own again, and I’ve got to get some money and somewhere to sleep, and why the fuck did I give myself all this grief all over again?  Yeah, but even then you’re already thinking about your next shift.  Where am I going to get some more seeds?  That’s what you’re thinking.  Who can I nick them from?  Who’ve I got to have sex with to get him to give them me?’

Tamsin looked into Jessica’s study.  As she entered it the large wall-mounted computer screen came to life and there was Jessica’s virtual p.a., ‘Elsie’, life-sized, smiling out at her in the form of a friendly, slightly overweight Scottish woman in her middle thirties.  Everyone had one these days – or at least everyone who had an exceptionally expensive, state-of-the-art computer like Jessica.  The things copied and spread themselves through the internet and you could customise them at will.

‘Hi Jessica,’ Elsie said to Tamsin.  ‘Have you had a good day?’

Tamsin dropped her glass. 

‘What the fuck?

The electronic face furrowed with concern.

‘Are you okay, Jessica.  You look very pale.  Is everything alright?’

Tamsin looked to the real Jessica outside the doorway for support.  Jessica laughed.

‘Don’t worry Tammy, it’s only a computer graphic.’

She came into the room, identified herself as the real Jessica, and told Elsie to shut herself down.

‘Creepy,’ muttered Tamsin as the screen blanked.

‘You’re right,’ said Jessica. ‘I think it’s about time I uninstalled her.’

She went for a cloth to mop up the spilled wine.

‘That computer can’t have come cheap,’ Tamsin said, looking round, while Jessica cleared up the mess, at the elegantly minimal furnishings, the shelves of art books, the signed painting on the wall. ‘What the fuck do you do to get all this money?’

‘I manage an art gallery.’

‘What, paintings and that?’

‘Not many paintings actually.  Body pieces mainly these days.’


‘Pieces made from human bodies.’


‘Listen Tammy.  Don’t do any more shifts.  Stay with me.  Please.  Promise me you will.  I’ll look after you.  I’ll make everything alright for you.’

‘Have you got a bath?  I’d really like a bath.’

‘Of course.  And take some of my clothes.  They can be our clothes.  I’ll change too.  We could have a bath together and dress the same.  Let’s see how alike we are when we dress the same.  Let’s take pictures of ourselves together.’

* * *

They slept together that night in Jessica’s double bed.  Tamsin went to sleep very quickly.  It was a long time since she had lain down in a real warm bed after a bath with a belly-full of food.  Like some small forest animal, she had learnt to exploit such moments when they came.

Perhaps she’s not like me at all, thought Jessica suddenly in the dark, listening to Tamsin’s wheezy breathing. A person’s body and brain were just empty vessels waiting to be filled, or so the earnest doctors had told her. Personality was in the programming, not in the machine. What did a shoot ‘em up game and a word processor have in common just because they could be run with the same hardware?  This was a complete stranger lying beside her: a dangerous, unpredictable interloper who, in a moment of madness, she had brought into the safe zone and into her flat and her bedroom and her bed – yes, and then made extravagant promises to as well:  ‘Stay with me.  I’ll look after you.  I’ll make everything all right.’  What had she been thinking?  Had she gone completely mad?

But then she thought: yes, but the same things made us laugh.  She and I both noticed it.  We noticed each other noticing it.  So there is something in common. Whatever the different paths we have travelled, deep down Tammy and I are still the same. 

But then she thought: why I am so obsessed anyway with finding someone who is the same?  Why this constant obsessive longing for a soul-mate?  Suppose I did find someone who was identical to me in every way.  Wouldn’t that just be another way of being alone?

Tamsin whimpered in her sleep.

‘Tex!  Don’t do that!’ she pleaded with someone in her dream.  ‘Please!  Please!  Please!…  You’re scaring me Tex.  Oh shit, no!  Please!

‘It’s okay sweetheart,’ whispered Jessica.  ‘It’s okay Tammy.  You’re only dreaming.  You’re safe here with me.’

She took Tammy in her arms.  Tenderness such as she had never felt came welling up in the darkness.  She remembered Tammy’s body in the bath, thin and pale, worn and scratched and bruised, with dozens of deep scars where Tammy had cut herself with razor blades and knives and broken glass.  What sort of pain would you need to have suffered to make you do that to your own flesh? 

What did it matter how alike or unalike Tammy was to her?  The point was that they were connected.  They were inextricably connected. 

* * *

Next morning, as it happened, Britain embarked on a war.  Few people even remarked on it.  It took place in a small country far beyond the imaginative universe of most British people.  Even the brave warriors themselves fought from ten thousand metres up and never once saw the faces of those they attacked.

A war had begun.  What last night had been solid buildings in that small faraway country – houses, offices, factories – this morning were scattered stones and bricks and bits of wood.  On TV, if Jessica had chosen to watch it, the safely returned warriors were being asked how they felt  (‘How was it for you?’  ‘Was it your first time?’ ‘Was it like what you expected?’)   But Jessica didn’t watch TV and, though she woke abruptly with a sense of loss and dread, it came from quite another source.   She was alone.  While she slept, Tamsin had gone. 

‘Tammy!’ cried Jessica, leaping out of bed, but she already knew what she would find: her purse emptied on the floor, her money gone, the front door left open, no note, no explanation…

Jessica threw on some clothes.  She wasn’t angry.  She knew that Tamsin had gone to buy ‘seeds’ and she understood this perfectly, for she knew that, if she had been the one that had woken first and had found Tamsin still there, then she would have resented the intruder, and it would have been her who would have been desperate to put distance between them. 

She ran out into the street.

‘Tammy!  Tammy!’

It was 7 a.m.  Only a few people were about, most of them workers – LSN-vetted workers – who travelled into the Zone from far away to make the cappuccinos and empty the dishwashers and clean the streets.  They observed Jessica with surprise.  A Turkish newsvendor setting up his stand paused and asked her if she was alright.  Jessica ran past him to the gate.

‘Are you running round in circles?’ asked the LSN guard.  ‘It was only twenty minutes ago you last ran through.’

He frowned.

‘And weren’t you wearing red last time?’

* * *

Jessica arrived an hour late at the gallery.  She hurried through that pure white space in which each exhibit was isolated and quarantined by a frame, by glass, by a neatly printed label: a preserved human face, a self-portrait made in blood, a scribbled page from a diary reproduced in relief on a slab of marble, a row of grainy snapshots of an ordinary London street, elaborately framed and labelled with Roman numerals like the stations of the cross…

Barely even speaking to her secretary, she shut herself away in her office and went at once to her PC to download the photographs she had taken the previous night.  There they were on the screen, a dozen pictures of Tammy, in Jessica’s bath robe, in Jessica’s pyjamas, laughing and pulling faces and striking poses.

She clicked the print icon.  She gathered up the printed images one by one as they emerged and then laid them out on her desk.  Last night, when she and Tamsin had been together what these twelve pictures showed had been reality.  But now each of them had already become an object in its own right, separate from the past, separate from each other, separate from Jessica, separate above all from Tamsin. 

Jessica felt nothing.  She moved the photos this way and that on the desk, over and over again, trying different arrangements, as if she thought she might find a pattern, a resolution, if only she tried long enough.  

Copyright 2004, Chris Beckett

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