A short fiction collection to stand with Ted Chiang's Exhalation and Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners.
The new collection of beautiful, strange and disarming short stories from the award-winning author of The Beauty, Clarke Award nominee The Loosening Skin and The Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley. In 16 stories Whiteley deftly unpeels the strangeness of everyday life through beguiling gardens, rebellious bodies and journeys across familiar worlds, with her trademark wit and compassion.
Witness the future of farming in a new Ice Age, or the artist bringing life to glass; the many-eyed monsters we carry and the secret cities inside our bodies; the alien invasion through our language to the Chantress and her twists on the fairy tale. Fascinating and always unexpected, Whiteley is unlike any other writer working today.
Release date: September 14, 2021
Publisher: Titan Books
Print pages: 320
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From the Neck Up and Other Stories
My real name is gone. I have left it so far in the past that I can pretend it is forgotten. Age, however, I cannot leave behind. It stalks me, and pounces, again and again, shaking me between its teeth until my skin sags and my gums flap.
I have decided not to dwell on the things that have happened and the marks they have left. It is enough to have my place in the biodomes. I am now a product of my situation; that is, the forcing of life into forms and shapes it would never assume if left to its own devices. But it must be made to fit the space assigned to it, and the truth is there’s not much space left.
We are squeezed together, the melons and I.
“Mel,” says Mr Cecil. I should be paying attention, but instead I’m chewing over the fact that he, too, started off as a worker and now I must call him Mister while he uses a nickname for me. “How’s impregnation going?”
“Areas twelve to twenty-two are done.”
“Good, good. Anything you need?”
“I’m off to Courgettes, then. Shout if there’s a problem.” Off he goes in his little motorised buggy. I watch it recede along the rows and then the calm of the melons reasserts itself. No sound. No sound at all.
Home-grown, the labels will say. Organic home-grown cantaloupe melons, low carbon emissions, no pesticides, one hundred per cent UK workers, and they will cost more than an entire synthetic pig, but that’s fine. Some people are rich and they spend their money on the strangest things without ever once finding a space in which they fit.
Today is impregnation day in twenty areas. The paintbrush must be dipped into the male flowers to collect a dab of pollen. This is an orange powder, so bright, so fine. I use a sable brush so I can see the pollen clearly. I like to know exactly how much I have collected; I would hate to waste this precious stuff. It has the most important job in the world to do. Here it goes – I take it to the female flower, and stroke it inside her opening.
Do you know how you tell it’s a female flower? At the base of the petals she bulges into a ball: a perfect sphere, a promise of intention. If she receives the pollen, she will continue to swell to giant proportions long after the pretty little flower dies and drops away. Instead, there nestles a monster and the stem thickens to support it. A melon grows to the size of my head, larger. I will put it inside a net that hangs from the pole structure to which the plants cling. Inside each melon lurk so many new seeds, to start the process all over again.
This is my favourite part of the job.
* * *
Communal dinner hour is five to six o’clock. Some complain about the earliness of the hour for the final meal of the day, but it suits me; I’ll be asleep by nine, after spending a little time on my slides. I don’t know why everyone enjoys complaining so, or how they have the energy for it. None of us are spring chickens anymore. Chickens in spring, scratching and pecking and laying their eggs. Apparently, they still do this in the Livestock part of Blossom Farm. Imagine – spring chickens. Their tender drumsticks must fetch a fortune.
I’m eating a cheese-flavoured sandwich when Lonnie and Jim carry their trays to my table at the back of the dining room. They take the seats opposite and continue a loud conversation. I get the feeling I’m meant to overhear it.
“It’s always the same in Strawberries,” says Jim. “Too much temptation for us old ’uns. That sweetness takes years off you.”
He smacks his lips together under his white moustache. I don’t believe he’s tasted a strawberry for a moment. How is it possible to have that much hair on your mouth and none on your head? The shiny, greasy expanse of skin hanging loose on his skull is too much reality for me. I put down my sandwich and sip my water instead.
“Mmmm,” says Lonnie, shaking her head. Her cumbersome earrings jangle. The lobes have been stretched to incredible proportions over years of abuse in the name of decoration, and now she must always wear big earrings or leave her ears flapping in the simulated weather of the Satsuma section.
I’m cruel, I know, I know. I am a cruel old lady and I am no less ugly than they are. My distaste is centred on them only because there is no mirror here with which to catch my own reflection.
“Out in the cold,” says Jim, mournfully. “Straight out, with nothing but a coat and that collection of teddy bears stuffed into two bin bags.”
So now I know who they’re talking about. It’s Daisy. Daisy has been caught stuffing her face with strawberries and has been kicked out of Blossom Farm.
This is why Jim and Lonnie chose to sit here. They know about Daisy and me. She had such fresh blue eyes, even though she was older than many here. And a laugh! A laugh I loved.
But that was a long time ago.
I wonder what made her eat those strawberries.
“You knew Daisy, didn’t you?” asks Jim.
Why does he want a response from me? What possible entertainment could it give him?
“No,” I say. “Not really.”
Another little part of what is left of my emotions shrivels up and crumbles to dust. Jim and Lonnie exchange glances, then change the subject to that old favourite, the weather.
“Minus ten out there today,” says Jim. “Not bad for the time of year. Wind chill will take it down, though. Northerly, isn’t it? I checked the board first thing.”
They talk on. My thoughts turn to those teddy bears. Daisy loved them so, making them from scraps of clothing that you would have thought unsalvageable. If you had a shirt you thought beyond stitching she would bother you for it, offering to fetch you a replacement from stores, and the next thing you know it would have been turned into a cheeky little fellow, fuzzy and friendly and determined to make you smile. She kept them all in her room and gave them names at least three syllables long, sounding like they belonged in a world of stately homes and tea parties. Peregrine. Terpsichory. Sir Xavier Hugsalot the Third.
Enough. I get up. I leave behind my sandwich and ignore Jim when he calls, “Aren’t you going to eat that?” to my back. I walk through the dining area with its bright white lights shining down on the stained tabletops, and then I walk through the communal area where mismatched armchairs and sofas jostle – each one bearing knitted covers courtesy of the workers – and down the corridors that lead to my room.
We all take up our spare time with these silly obsessions. Making antimacassars or putting boats in bottles. Teddy bears from scraps of material. And the scraps of my memory lead to my obsession: the slides.
* * *
I paint a moment of my life on each glass pane. The good moments stay in my room where I can see them often. The bad ones go elsewhere.
The glass comes from the very beginnings of Blossom Farm when tomatoes were grown in greenhouses rather than the biodomes. I remember a greenhouse. It belonged to my grandmother. I can see it standing at the bottom of an orderly garden behind the tall, tied sticks around which pea shoots twirled. The strange thing was that the little building did not seem to be made of glass. It was so full of grapevines, cuttings and plants just starting their growth that the whole space within appeared green to my eyes, green to the point of bursting forth and overrunning the structure.
I used to be a little afraid of it, and of the bottom of the garden.
My grandmother. I have never remembered her as clearly as the greenhouse. I would like to make an image of her face but we don’t choose what we remember, do we? And I only have space in my head for emotions, not people. It’s the fear I paint.
My room is small and safe. I work for a while, on my painting of the greenhouse. I have only black paint left over in metal pots from when the farm had a Welcome sign out front, but that is good enough; why are so many people unhappy with what they have? It must be made to suit, and that is all. Mr Taylor, the forerunner of Mr Cecil, gave me the code to the old storeroom where all obsolete things lurk. He was very kind to me, in many ways.
I pack away my paintbrush, stolen from the task of melon impregnation, and evaluate the black lines that make my greenhouse on glass.
* * *
“It’s nothing to be scared of,” said Nane.
But Flori resisted. She didn’t want to go inside, no matter what her grandmother said. The earth, the smell, the brush of damp leaves, the touch of tendrils.
“Come help me with the plants,” said Nane, and pushed her inside.
It was a different, denser world in there and hardly had room for the little girl. And what was that sound? She crouched as the low thrum of a wasp manoeuvred around her head – driven dizzy by the sweetness of the grapes – and then it was in her face, zipping and dipping, and prickling her ear.
Nane said, “Stay still. Stay very still.”
* * *
I don’t remember what happened next, and I’m too tired to care. My little bed calls to me. I stack the latest glass pane under the bed, with the others, and then turn out the light.
I can’t hear the wind but I imagine it’s blowing. I can’t see the snow but I can picture it piling high, drifting and blizzarding, blanketing the biodomes throughout the night.
Somewhere out there are two bin bags filled with teddy bears. Goodbye, Sir Xavier Hugsalot the Third. You were, once upon a time, my favourite.
* * *
Mr Cecil likes to talk about yield. He manages a team of five and insists on making a presentation for our weekly meetings. It was his big innovation upon taking over from Mr Taylor two years ago. How much will each section yield? He doesn’t seem to remember that it is not a matter of the plants yielding to us at all. One of these days they will grow so fast and so free that they will dominate once more – and that is how it should be.
He provides his estimates in brightly coloured bar charts that he prints out on paper and hands around the meeting room. What a waste. Well, not entirely a waste; we save up the sheets for Brian from Peppers, who creates very amusing wordsearches on the reverse. Brian has a knack for resurrecting the past in bite-sized, bittersweet chunks that don’t choke us. The wordsearches hide within them different makes of chocolate bar; names of English counties; types of car. It’s amazing how much we remember about things that are gone and how little we want to retain about our here and now.
Mr Cecil has reached the topic of melon yield, and I don’t care. Just let me be among them, warm and safe. Just let me be. Still, I make my polite face and the others are doing the same. Melons. Peppers. Chillies. Courgettes. Butternut squash. We’re an odd group, I’ll give you, lacking the obvious coherence of Berry Fruits, say, but we rub along. Mainly through the mutual bond of Brian’s wordsearches.
Suroopa – Courgettes – looks tired this morning. Usually her clothes are clean and pressed, her short black hair brushed well, but today she yawns and her face is as crumpled as her shirt.
“Are you not feeling well?” Mr Cecil asks her after a particularly large yawn. “You look all at sea today, Suroopa.”
She reassures him that all is well. What an expression. All at sea. It reminds me of old rhymes, sailing away to the Land of Nod, owls and pussycats and beautiful pea green boats. They sailed and took the fairy tales with them. They sailed on one of the last ferries; I watched them go from the bus.
“Mel,” says Mr Cecil, and his voice cuts through my dreams and brings me back to the here and now. “Don’t tell me you’re busy woolgathering as well today?”
“No, Mr Cecil,” I tell him. “Sorry.”
He carries on.
Where does he get these ancient expressions from? He must have a thesaurus tucked away in his room somewhere. He probably reads it in bed every night looking for another obscure thing to say, thinking – that’s an interesting one, oh yes, I must use that.
Today, in sections five to fifteen, I must take soil temperature readings. It can be hell on the back, all that stooping, so my first thought when the alarm bell rings is of annoyance. Not another drill, not today. I really can’t be bothered to hang around for hours pretending to care.
I look at Mr Cecil’s face and that tells me something I don’t want to believe. This is not a drill.
He doesn’t know what’s happening.
The alarm whoops, a long wail that climbs up and falls down, over and over.
I stand up.
“No,” says Mr Cecil, putting up his hands. “It will stop, it will stop, it’s just a… a problem with the—”
“A malfunction?” says Gregor, who is small and well-muscled for his age and looks like the sort of man who has learned the hard way not to trust anyone when alarms are ringing. He stands up and then so do Suroopa, and Brian, and Zena. Mr Cecil, in the face of overwhelming odds, changes his tune.
“Adopt lockdown procedures,” he calls, and leads the way from the meeting room out into the curved corridor where the alarm is louder still and others are scurrying to their own positions, their faces scrunched up with surprise and fear.
Mr Cecil sets a fast pace and we move as a group, single file. My body aches, but it’s a pain I’m used to. I’m still better off than Brian, with his chest complaints. I can hear him wheezing behind me as we make it back to Sector K.
At the entrance to Sector K, Mr Cecil turns and waves us all through. We know what happens now. We will all be locked inside with the plants. Something in me thinks this is a really good idea. You don’t live as long as I have without getting a gut instinct for things.
I wait until the others are through and then call back to Mr Cecil, who looks up from fumbling with his utility belt.
“Mr Cecil,” I say. I can tell what he’s thinking. He means to stand outside, to break protocol, and I have to shake that thought from his head. I know why this system was set up. I’ve seen the reason why.
“No, I think, today, I should…”
“No,” I tell him. “No.”
But he says, “Stop fussing, please, Mel,” and closes the door. Through the safety glass panels of the door I see him type in the special code to shut down the door. Then he disappears from view.
Brian wheezes on. Suroopa gets him seated at the orange plastic table and chairs next to the water dispenser. The others stand around staring at him.
Reception Area K reminds me of a hand. There are five walkways leading off, like fingers, from the square palm of the main room. Beyond lie the segmented parts of our dome. I want to go into mine and work, alone and safe.
“Breathe,” Suroopa tells Brian. “Breathe.” The others watch, spectators to a private battle. Is he losing? No – he nods, nods, and there, he is controlling his lungs, mastering his body.
“Well done,” says Suroopa, patting his arm.
The alarm winds down, slowly falling in pitch until it cuts out and leaves an eerie silence. It has never done that before.
“Right,” whispers Zena. I don’t know why she’s whispering. “Someone page Cecil and get him to let us out.”
“Not yet,” I say, and am surprised to find it comes out as a whisper too.
“I don’t think we should wait,” says Suroopa. “Brian needs to see the doctor.” She straightens up and pushes the button on her pager. We all listen. There it is, the tinny sound of his pager from the other side of the door. Then it stops. He must have turned it off.
Someone walks past.
“Who was that?” says Gregor, and then says something in his own language. He moves to the door and puts his face to the glass, then retreats behind Brian’s chair.
“I think it was Jack from, ah…” says Suroopa.
“No,” I say. “It wasn’t.”
There are voices outside, voices I don’t recognise. This is a secure compound; there are guards, automated systems, nobody gets in without permission. But I don’t recognise those voices.
Mr Cecil replies. I can’t make out the words but his voice is high. He has been trained for this sort of situation. He has a weapon that he carries on his utility belt. I’ve seen it. A taser. Has he drawn it? Does he have it ready, in his hand?
Shouting. It builds, it is loud.
Then everything goes quiet.
They will make him open the door. They will force him to and I would not blame him, not when I think of all the things they could do to him. I know the things pain can make you do. I would open the door too.
No. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t open the door. I would protect my safe place, my growing plants, because there is nothing else left.
The silence stretches on. It is long enough and deep enough for doubts to form. Is this an elaborate part of the drill just to check we won’t open the door under any circumstances? The relief I feel at that idea is crazy. I want to cling on to it. All we have to do is hold on for a few more minutes and then Mr Cecil will appear with a wink and tell us we did well, as if we are children who have been left unattended in a school room.
I’m lost in this concept when a face appears at the safety glass.
It’s a man. A very young man with a beard tinged with ice, bluish lips buried deep, and red-rimmed eyes. The chill of ice is stuck fast to his skin. I had forgotten how beautiful young men could be.
Suroopa wails behind me. He looks at each of us in turn. His eyes linger on Brian, who is still slumped over in his chair but breathing regularly. The man can’t hear that, of course; as far as he’s concerned, Brian might be dead. His eyes don’t register any emotion. He points downwards, I’m guessing at the keypad for the door.
I shake my head.
He doesn’t seem bothered by my refusal. He points again, but none of us move.
He walks away.
If he can’t get in, if he’s relying on us to input the code, then it can only mean one thing – Mr Cecil is incapable of giving him what he wants.
“Don’t let him in,” says Gregor, and Zena says, “What does he want? What does he want?”
Brian sits up and wheezes out the thought that has invaded my mind. “Agro-terrorist.”
Please, no. They’ll destroy the melons. They deal in the destruction of the good things to eat, that only the rich can afford, in the name of fairness, for the idea of making this a natural world once more. “Look,” I say. “No matter what happens, we can’t let him in. The guards will sort this out, but we need to be strong. We’ve got water and food. It’s an emergency – they’ll understand if we eat a bit of the fruit. We can stay here for days keeping the plants, and ourselves, safe.”
“Days?” says Suroopa.
“It won’t take that long,” I say. “This place is top security. They’ll get it under control in no time.”
“Where’s Mr Cecil?” says Zena. “Should I page him again?”
Gregor and I exchange looks. If I’ve thought about Mr Cecil’s chances out there, then Gregor has done the same and come to the same conclusion. That’s how his mind works.
“No,” says Gregor. “Do not page him.”
“He’ll be busy,” I say. “Negotiating.” It sounds official. It’s the right word. The others visibly relax.
“Sit tight,” wheezes Brian. He manages a smile.
I look at them. Four old, scared people. And I make five. How quickly things change. Ten minutes ago, I was thinking about my soil samples and my problems were molehills. I thought I would have my melons to care for, and my slides to paint, and that those things would be enough for the tail end of a beast of a life. But although I was done with difficult times, it seems they are not done with me.
I can wait this out. I can survive. And so can my plants.
“We’ll take it in turns to see to our areas,” I say. “There’s no reason to let the plants suffer, and it will keep our minds off—”
A new face appears at the glass. Not a new face. An old face.
Her eyes are blue, bluer than ever before. Then I realise they only look that way because of the blood on her face. It’s so red against her white skin, and her eyes are translucent but they see me clearly. They focus on me and hold me close.
The blood is a smear that stretches from her forehead to her cheek, daubed on, like warpaint. She puts the back of her hand to her face, and wipes it, and that’s when I realise it’s her own blood. She’s daubing herself in the blood that is coming from her heavily bandaged fingers. Ripped material has been wrapped around and around, and it has soaked through, turned bright red.
Not good enough for a teddy bear, Daisy, I want to say. Not even you could salvage that old rag.
She looks so tired. No, that’s not it: she looks destroyed. Worn down to pieces that are somehow still managing to move around. Her mouth is forming shapes.
Open the door, her lips are saying without sound.
Mel. Open the door.
I don’t move.
Please open the door.
Gregor comes to stand behind me, ...
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