" A quintessential Twilight Beach story. Not strictly a Tom Rynosseros tale, though I consider it so and Tom is mentioned. Rather it concerns one of Tom's early crewmen, giving the reason why he left Rynosseros."
Jon might have been safe if he had stayed clear of the window.
He sat before the wall screen of his darkened second-storey room
in the Gaza Hotel, trying not to notice the heavy red light, trying
not to look up when sudden gusts made the shutters rattle and
He knew to stay slow and quiet, to let the angry day work itself into a wild evening and blustering, unfriendly night. Tom, Ben and Rim had talked of a meal later, or drinks down in the Astronomers' Bar with other restless sandship crews, but Jon had begged off.
True, he wouldn't have to venture onto the streets to do either, but somehow crossing the Gaza lobby and catching even a glimpse of the hellish day outside, let alone the Dantesquè view of empty terraces, the deserted Pier and windswept ocean through the Bar's big windows, would crush his spirit.
He had sailed deep desert charvis through wind and dust countless times, had braved the wild sanalatti and the fierce brinragas of the south. He had been inside the larrikin too, out where it sometimes rose up like the pillars of cloud and fire before Moses, interwoven - as Ben had once said - like the DNA of God, turning the sky to blood, out where it was just one more part of the wild land and the far distances.
It was different here in the town with the larrikin flinging itself onto the sea like this, angry and vengeful. It was . . . just different. What had been a dusty, hard-sailing wind in the kites and cables of a speeding charvolant was almost a stranger here, a vicious caricature, frightening and alien.
Better the quiet - the relative quiet - of his room; the live coverage from Bonn of the European Operatic Festival. Better retiring early and trying to sleep it through.
He tried to give his attention to the screen. Lori Anas was performing an aria from Goranod, her voice and the orchestral arrangement giving a strange order to the fretful, relentless day outside.
I'll wait till the diva's performance, he decided. Wait till Aelea Sandercost sings and see how I feel. By then I'll know what I'll need to get me through this. I can always join Tom and the others later; they won't be far away.
And like a demon's queue of fate it happened, events tightly interwoven: interference in the broadcast signal, the screen going to snow, the Gaza logo appearing till transmission could be restored, the song above the wind.
Not Lori Anas singing. Not the diva, Aelea Sandercost, far too early. It sounded barely human, and yet nothing like the thrumming wires either - those thin nylon cords the larrikins often set up between buildings to vibrate and howl and mark their passing.
A woman's voice singing out of the larrikin wind, singing from inside it.
And unable to stop himself, Jon found he was at the window, cycling open the shutters without sliding back the glass, standing with his arms and face lit the colour of old blood. He saw her on the street corner below, shrouded, hooded, but with her head tipped back, exposing her naked face to the stinging flow, aiming her song.
Larrikin mischief, he thought, that's all. Singing at the wind-blinded, international hotels was not unheard of at times like this. Larrikin madness, like the thrumming wires and Rorschach leaflets, the strange questions.
But this wasn't the usual eerie keening; these were fragments of coherent song, melody torn by the air-flow, but there in a lull, lost and back again, order in chaos, a strong voice singing.
She saw him framed in bloodlight and threw back her hood as well, so her dark hair flowed on to the tormented air like Gorgon snakes, crusader banners, ebon fire.
He imagined that she smiled too, though it was nearly impossible to tell. Perhaps he needed the welcome.
But then he had the other reaction. He felt foolish, compromised standing there, seeing himself as one of many guests drawn to their windows on this wild afternoon, lured from their siestas and palliatives, forced from their distractions.
But she summoned him. He saw that; he was certain of it. She raised one arm and beckoned him down.
He did the only thing possible. He closed the shutters on her, moved into the darkened room. The Gaza logo had vanished, he noticed in alarm, Lori Anas had finished her aria; the announcer was mentioning programme highlights, Mancom Orchestra Two performing excerpts from Don Picasso, the appearance by the diva herself, Aelea Sandercost.
Jon sat in his armchair, ignoring the windows, but listening, he discovered, in case the song was there again.
Did he hear it? Was that it? Or just a high-singing wire somewhere close by. He glanced at the screen. No-one performing there; it was an intermission, and the world famous tenor, Nicholas Mascard, was being interviewed.
Jon shut off the set. He listened for her, thought he could hear a deft high edge to the wind. A human edge.
Again, he did the only thing possible.
He was at the shutters before he knew it, verifying her existence, then at the door with the image of her - a street corner, tattered flag - pressed into his mind, found himself (exactly how it was, found himself in increments of discovery) in djellaba, holding wind-shades. On the stairs. In the lobby, smiling politely at the desk clerk's: "Good day, Mr Tramba!". At the door.
Inside the wind, that wind.
He found himself.
Went to her, was flung at her really, thrown across to where she waited, tottered like a drowning man on dancing, drunken mariner legs. He moved up close, the wind thrusting him too close, battering him in to a terrifying intimacy where words could be heard.
Jon had never addressed a larrikin before. He had seen them from the decks of sandships, of course; wondered at them, yes. But what did one say? Their words were so strange, people told him.
"You came anyway," she said, as if proving the truth of those stories, leaning towards him, nearly touching, and giving exact calculated words, he realized, not a single one wasted. You did not live in the maelstrom and waste words - which told him how precious that song had been.
He sensed a different reality here, understood it in an instant, the way an eaglet falling from a nest discovers the instant benediction of wings.
"I had to know," he said, and laughed at himself because he had no idea at all what he meant.
But she did. Of course she did, knowing why it was she sang. He trusted that.
"Come," she said, and reached out, found his hand, found it a closed fist on the hem of his djellaba and opened it, led him into an alleyway, into the foyer of an apartment building with doors shut tight like coffin lids. In the gloom, in this safe false night in a lost corner of the blood-red day, there was a kind of silence. The air around them was still, and comfortably free of the red wind-light out there (the doorway blazed like a centurion's cloak, like burning Rome itself).
She pushed back her hood, removed the veil and shades she had removed earlier to sing up at him.
At him. He knew that now, not needing to embroider the romance.
Maybe she wasn't as young as his fantasy of a woman for the wind would have had her be, no girl, in her thirties (there was a ten year range he could never guess). But it was a startlingly beautiful face for such a meeting, filled with sufficient deja-vu to be a dream woman come alive, amply accommodating the needs he had, as unfathomed as those were.
My diva, he thought, wanting to hear her sing again, thinking of the Bonn festival back in his room, of Aelea Sandercost, bringing a memory of that diva here because it kept some part of the moment even more immediate and full.
He caught himself at that foolishness, about to spoil what simply was, overload it. This was for itself.
"What is your name?" she said, speaking the words carefully.
"Jon," he answered. "Yours?"
"I'd like you to give me one, Jon."
"But . . ."
"Please. You give me one."
He thought immediately of the Bonn festival, though he was determined not to mention that here.
"All right," he said. "Aelea."
"Aelea?" She frowned for a moment, almost went to ask something but seemed to reconsider. A lovely radiance appeared in her eyes, a shift of light visible even in that dim sheltered space.
"Aelea," she said again. "I like that, Jon, and I accept it."
And she left a silence, made it a waiting so they stood like actors with lines forgotten, unable to cue each other.
Jon couldn't bear it. The metre between them seemed so much less; it was impossible to keep silent.
"Why did you beckon me down?" he asked her, one of the obvious questions he had meant to avoid.
"Because you looked out," she said. "All the people in those rooms at the Gaza who knew I was there, and only you did that."
Only me? His lips might have ghosted the words, might even have whispered them aloud, he didn't know because the sense of loss took everything else away for that instant. Only me? Could it be so? That was one thought. The other was sharp with disappointment: not for my sake then. Not for me especially.
There was anger too, vanity anger, pride anger, quick and reasonable. And self-reproach. What did you expect, fool, out here like this?
"Your real reason then?" he said, and the look on her lovely exposed face told him she had seen that anger and disappointment, that despair even, many times before.
"Try not to be hurt," she said. "You really didn't come down here for that. You couldn't see me that well."
"No," he said, but felt even more dismayed, even more tricked and cheated, tracking his motives back through his actions. "It was the song . . ."
"The romance of someone singing in the wind."
"All right, yes. I was intrigued." He nearly said "entranced" but quickly buried that unwanted word.
"I could have been anyone," she said. "Someone older, less alluring. You came out for the secret of it. The romance and mystery. Trust me on that, Jon. I'm used to failing people who believe they know why they do things. I've disappointed many people. So trust me if you can. That's ultimately why you came."
Jon wondered why he was fighting an idea he had already accepted as true. He understood something, or rather recognized that there was something here to be understood. He remembered the Anas aria, the fine music of the EOF Orchestra, the introspection, the receptiveness, the expectation of more to come, the Sandercost appearance. Inner world and outer blending in an instant, drawing him on to the streets of Twilight Beach, under the red apocalyptic sky, primed and foolish, ready for revelation. Already the flush of ennoblement he used to feel sometimes after watching a movie or reading a book or hearing a piece of music, the quiet exaltation of seeing acts of honour, devotion and love. The feeling of wanting to act, to be more, better somehow.
But Jon didn't want to discuss that. He was in the nadir of a seduction gone wrong as well, discomfited now. He wanted to find Tom and the others, get inside the hotel, put the whole incident back where it belonged, see it as wind madness, larrikin madness, an interlude for the crazies.
"You're right," he said, reasonable again, his way of backing off on all levels of their involvement. "It was the romance of it."
"Why, do you think?"
"I asked why it affected you? I wonder what it meant for you to bring you out in this?"
"It just did," he said. "Let's drop it. I was curious."
She read more, he could tell, read the fine tuning of his body. She read needful, but saw a man about to flee, already in the act of withdrawing. This woman who used the considered, deliberate gestures of the pneuma could recognize such delicate things.
"Who are we?" she said, from the growing distance of his turning away, one metre nearly made two.
"What do you mean?"
"Who are we, do you think? The larrikins?"
"Its an old word," he said, more and more like a schoolchild snatched from a daydream and hating the question that had done such harm. "I don't remember the original meaning."
"I didn't mean that," she said. "That was 'hooligan' - from the Irish 'Houlihan'. 'Larrikin' is uncertain; it may have come from someone named Larry. I mean how do you see us? Who are we to you?"
The question annoyed him, but it was how she asked it, the fascinating intensity of it, with the light still in the eyes, that made him face her again.
"Well, you're like gypsies, aren't you?"
"I often think we are, yes. But why that?"
"What? I don't know! You tell me!" Or let me go, he wanted to say. I don't belong here.
"You were at the Gaza," she said. "A great tourist hotel. Visited by Internationals from all over the world; frequented by Nationals, sometimes even tribal people. I wonder why?"
"I'm a sailor. Between missions," Jon said. "A sand-ship sailor. I travel the interior. My captain likes Twilight Beach and the Gaza. He makes it his stopover whenever he can."
"A sailor. You're already well on the way."
Jon heard the words but found he was resisting their meaning again. Something had been damaged here, ruined, and Jon did not know what. His motives weren't clear; all he knew was that he was using his anger to ruin what was left of that mysterious knowledge he had sensed before.
"You? What of you?" he said.
"I was a singer at the Abelan," she told him. "I had a growing career."
"And?" Impatient and angry. He kept discovering those things in him and wondered why.
"I gave it up. Became available for this."
"For what? What is this? You sound like a religious fanatic. Is that what you are, the lot of you?"
"Simpler, Jon. Our world is full of information saturation, too much knowledge, too many answers, stereotypes, roles, categories. How old are you? What do you do for a living? Who are you? And worse questions, glib questions. Why are you? What are you? Some of us want to simply be, to be out of that for awhile. Casualties of the Information Revolution."
"I don't understand this, don't you see? I don't follow what you're saying. You sound like you're children out playing on a stormy day, rushing to do things, anything, before you're called inside."
Her look was so exquisitely given, such a suspension of completion, no words, no shift to the eyes, that he knew he had said her very thoughts, provided the answer she would have made.
He might have called here Aelea again then.
She spoke again, very softly so he had to strain to hear, calculatedly fragile words on the wind, delicate touchstone words. "The ancient Gnostics believed in the divine spark in man - the breath, the spirit of God. Their medieval alchemists accepted the world spirit existed - the pneuma. At its simplest, most vital personal level, probably just a wind, but a mystery too, an emblem wind. A symbol, but still itself, its other part, its other nature. The psyche recognises and only later comes to understand the secret life of things: a flag on a pole, a boy about to kick a ball, an old man looking at his shoe. An emblematic language. Some of us take comfort from the ideas that things can be possible, made new. No formal trappings: just a response. Maybe one in a thousand who comes to the window in a maelstrom, who gets tangled in a thrumming wire or finds a message blowing on the wind."
Jon felt he was free of it then. All this was pleasantly, trivially Zen, mumbo-jumbo. Up there with Aristotle's unity of matter, the ancient Greek idea of Gaea and the pneuma. He'd heard of such things, but in his world of sailing charvolants across the red deserts, of kites and captains, he'd put such things aside. She had spoken her brief, labelled herself as the crazy he needed her to be. What was left of the trap was wearing away; he was becoming free of it. Her look could not hold him.
But he never got to learn if he could walk away from her.
For other figures appeared in the streaming doorway, three sudden shadows like black iron nails on the harsh fraying red.
So that's it, he did not say aloud, bitterly disappointed, feeling fiercely betrayed, seizing on this new target for his anger.
Brigands and no more. Typical cutpurse gypsy bastards! Send out the woman, keep him talking till the others came. An old trick of the streetwise against the marks.
But no. The newcomers opened their djellabas, lowered hoods, shades and veils, brought out the empty weapons of their hands, palms open, fingers splayed into innocence, peace on the unravelling cloak of the wind.
"Jon came down," his brief one-time diva told them.
"I'm glad, Jon. Thank you," one said, black on black, African or Islander, Niuginian perhaps. Educated, moderate, peaceful, with a god's voice. Or an actor's, but he thought god's first. And it sounded genuinely relieved.
"We're going on," another said, his accent European, cultured, ancient, almost quaint.
"We'll wait at the end of the Promenade," said the third, like a final member of a group of magi intoning reverential lines at a neighbourhood adoration. "Set up a few wires."
"Thanks," the woman answered them. "I've almost finished here."
Almost finished! Jon was speechless. It was ridiculous, comical. Finished! She had a poor idea of what a few words could do, of how useless this had been.
The three men made their farewells - nods and gestures rather than words - closed themselves away, and re-entered their precious pneuma.
"The African is Harold Gane Jovri," she said when the doorway was empty again.
"What, the producer?"
"Once. Nation-Set's former projects chief. The second man is Christopher Graffin. He made violins in Antwerp until he became a composer at age 43. Chan Armitage was a lab tech at Bass. Did brain research for ten years; became a neurologian at 36."
"That's great, but . . ."
"We have mercenary veterans, archaeologists, surgeons, geneticists. PR execs and shopkeepers, biochemists - all kinds of labels represented: watchmakers and engineers, tailors, fashion reps . . ."
"What are you saying?"
"We're not recruiting. We're just here to let you know you're not alone."
"But listen . . ."
"I have to go, Jon. They're waiting. But that name you chose. I wish I could've been that for you."
"Please, listen. It matters. It really matters to me. Say it again."
"Your friends are waiting."
Her eyes still had that closed secret light in them as she took a step, crossed the distance and kissed him full on the mouth, her lips not as smooth as they might have been, but sweet, bringing back the intimacy.
And he let her, received the kiss, did not pull back from it.
And just like that she turned, went out into the red windy street and quickly blew away.
Jon stood in the dark foyer, watching the doorway till the striations of dust in the red became apparent as that, and he found himself aware again of the silent coffin-lid doors right there. Perhaps they weren't as dead and insensitive as they seemed, but were like tympanums, waiting ear-screens at which people could crouch and listen, anyone who wondered about the larrikins and found they had to know more.
Jon made himself move. He had adjusted his robes and stepped out into the lane, into the bluster, headed down the adjacent street towards the Gaza, found how much better he was already at keeping balance.
The afternoon was wearing on. The light was deeper, like blood starved of oxygen. He could hear the trilling cry of the thrumming wires somewhere. Ahead, beyond the Promenade, the dull weary ocean heaved like melted lead in an alchemist's bowl. Red dust hissed against the walls of the Gaza like powdered blood, or fistfuls of shaman's ochre scattered at the empty terraces and deserted loggias as part of some forgotten ritual.
He entered the hotel, crossed the quiet lobby (ignoring the "Bad day for it, Mr Tremba" from the desk-clerk), returned to his room. He slipped out of his sand-robes and sat before the dead screen, feeling safe behind shutters again, though now the gloom reminded him of the dim apartment foyer and the woman. Her shrouded companions like black birds. Or like magi. Yes, like magi, patient and watchful.
And like souvenirs found in other lands, trivial things half-heartedly brought home and then rediscovered and cherished again, her words were restored in value, suddenly important and suddenly hard to recall. He tried desperately to remember them.
Just what had that been, that meeting, that transaction? It was a transaction, he decided, patently so, with that diva, that unlikely madonna of the thrumming wires. With her companions too, three more of the many presently out there in the town, following the fortunes of the wind, harvesting what they could. Yes, harvesting. Sowing wires, notes and ideas, completing transactions. Harvesting.
But what sort of transaction? No literature thrust into his hand, no real theorising, not really. No promises sought. It had been simply a meeting: whatever was said had been to give it a shape and duration, a distance it could go.
Jon sighed and tried to relax.
He would forget this - forget the meeting.
Tomorrow, the next day, the larrikin would have passed out to sea, blown itself away, though suddenly he had an image of all this force being gathered in, stored in, stored up, a wind-mask kept to be worn again, the face of a joke-wind as much as a soul-wind, a precise deceiver.
Reaching down, he activated the screen.
The Festival broadcast was still going: the Mancom Orchestra Two were playing the closing moments of a Mozart Concerto. The light at the shutters told him he had probably missed the Sandercost aria. His watch confirmed it: 1640.
A transaction? Was it? A recognition?
He was considering that possibility when the announcer's voice said a name that drew him back.
". . . still no word. Ms Sandercost's manager confirms all her rehearsal remotes from Australia as valid, not pre-recorded. Mr Loq said she was on holiday and insists he had no reason to think that her Berlin confirmation a week ago was falsified. "It's not like her to go off like that," he said tonight, when the news of the diva's disappearance was made known."
Jon shut off the set, so just the wind remained. And the shutters as they rattled. And the deepening burgundy light, making even the hardest edges look velvet soft, as indistinct as his knowledge of what really was.
Not a matter of What? and Why? Not How? or Where?
And they were meeting, they said. They had a rendezvous; there was that chance.
And he had named her.
He wrote his note, donned his robes again. He stopped briefly at the front desk and was back in the blood-flow, running, spinning like a sand-ship kite along the Promenade before the dull dead sea. Having chosen one end of the Promenade, half a chance. Perhaps he would find them, catch them.
He did not cry out: Aelea! Aelea! in a strange mad song, though he could have and not been an imposter. He did not need to hide like that.
Running was enough, reading the exhausted angry day, enough. Just being there. Rushing after whatever gypsy scraps and tatters he could find, to have something of the scattered harvest of chance, some small part of the hearts and souls and hungry borrowed spirits of the larrikin wind.