He held me clamped to his side as we seemed to walk through space. I kept my eyes shut for so long and would have fallen but for his strength. He stopped to persuade me to open them, but it seemed the sky would crush me. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.
‘Ellen. Just look at something small and close to you, never move your eyes from that object and you will find the space is tiny. Try. Please.’ The last was said from behind a smile, I could hear it. I tried one eye and found I was looking down at my foot. Two eyes gave me very little extra to see. He was right: the space had suddenly collapsed in on itself. Alright?’ He did not take his arm away and, knowing that, I felt confident and whispered that maybe I was. It was easier now as I could avoid the tussocks that tripped. Bix talked quietly as we walked, telling me what little he knew of the Village we were going to. What he thought the different sounds we could hear were. About how brave he thought I was. I liked it when he said that, although we both knew he was not telling truth.
After many miles, when my legs ached from the unevenness of the ground, we met them. They weren’t so different. Less streamlined, no obvious Social Place difference and nothing they wore seemed to fit. Material flapped around bodies in slip-slap manner. Colours were subdued and there seemed to be many layers all fastened in different ways and places. Hair seemed to follow the clothes; there were no obvious symbols of hierarchy. Their talk at first seemed strange but I followed every word.
I was so tired I disgraced myself again and fell asleep when we arrived at the Village, my head in Bix’s lap. The depths I am sinking to, Gran, I thought as I tipped into fitful rest. The buzz of voices around me seemed like a child’s lullaby, one in which Bix’s voice was the melody.
Later, when I was conscious again, a Committee of them questioned me. About Gran mostly, but also me and Bix. I thought they would want to know about the City but, apart from how Gran was living, they ignored it. I thought at the time that maybe they didn’t know about the City, I know better now. I kept my expression as neutral as I could considering the distractions of the Village life around us. I described the Hallowed Halls and how well the Respected Elders were cared for. I explained the duty we have toward them at the end to give them what they most desire before they die. I explained what Gran desired. I told them I loved my Gran more than anything and wanted so much to do this for her, and I told them that, even now, it might be too late as she was within the last few days of life. Then I waited. They debated for so long. Once they asked why I had waited until the last moment to do this thing and I explained about Bix, how I would not have been able to go Outside without his help.
They went away and talked some more and I daydreamt of Gran, of when we had been younger. Of her singing silly songs that made me giggle, of how she used to hold me up to the windows on the Archway viewing stations and point out the different parts of the City by the coloured lights. Of the stories she told me about her youth, oh so many years before. And I dreamt of the strangeness of her life, of how I had always thought of her as so brave when she explained the Chaos of back then. Not just the Wars and destruction but all the everyday things they had to deal with, make judgments upon, decisions. The events, thoughts and actions they juggled continually through each waking day. How did they keep their minds together? How did their minds never split?
Then I thought of how she may be dying right at that moment and Leaving me, maybe already had. The sadness fell like a weighted cloth over me and my head bowed under its pressure. Please let her be there when I return, my mind whispered. I needed to say goodbye to her. An arm seemed to drift lightly around me and I leaned into Bix gratefully. He said nothing, which was good. I closed my eyes and inhaled the odour of him. Bix.
I cannot recall in detail that first evening. So much noise and turmoil. Agitation inundated every part of me. People moving everywhere, talking, shouting, interrupting, laughing. Children shrieking and running and where was the Order? Why this Chaos? I huddled, miserable, next to Bix who seemed not to notice any confusion. They offered food and drink; I burrowed my head in Bix’s shoulder shaking my head. It was wrong. I knew as I did it how unpardonably rude I was being, but that day I could no longer Control. I wanted to be back in the peace of the City so much. Only Gran kept me there. And Bix.
That first night we were shown a room for our sleeping but Bix said he would sleep out under the stars. I had heard the Feral would not allow for comfortable sleep within walls. I went with him. How would I sleep without his safety? He made our two bags into one and grinned in the gloom as I snuggled next to him. I pushed my head into his shoulder to hide the dangerous dark that pressed me to the ground. The bags were warm and against belief I slept, close to Bix. Never since I was weaned had I slept so; body to body. I slept instantly, my brain so tired and jumbled it crashed to the safety of night oblivion. When I woke I wondered how the Directors would react when they knew. It was a thought instantly lost as Bix’s breath stirred my cheek
‘Just in time, my love. Up, up and watch the sunrise. It’s fantastic. Come.’ He pulled me to my feet and spun me round to watch the horizon. His hands held either side of my face, forced my gaze only forward and shielded me from the space. My hands went up to hold his there and then I ventured to open my fast-closed eyes. Never have I seen such a sight. The terror of the expanse was held at bay by his hands. I know now that many people have sung to the glory that I looked on for the first time that day. Poets and artists, musicians and philosophers, all have had their say. For me it was the first time, and it was the magic which helped shape my actions from then. I sighed when day finally presented, felt a sadness that this display was over. I understood that tomorrow’s display would not be the same.
That morning I tried to eat my first ‘real food’. I looked at the plate set down before me, saw nameless heaps of texture and colour, saw and felt heat rising and then smelt the whole and felt my gorge rise. From under my lowered lids I looked around at the rest of the company, they were eating with healthy enjoyment. There was talk and laughter; people’s arms and hands crossing and stretching across the table, offering, taking. The Chaos and intrusion of all the activity caused my tensions to rise again. Control. I must Control. This was how they behaved; I must not dishonour them, they who had allowed me into their home. I looked up quickly at Bix who smiled encouragingly back.
‘It’s very good,’ he said and I thought that maybe it might be Bix’s first food as well. ‘Try it,’ he urged.
I tried. I choked and spluttered. I disgraced myself. The temperature was too high, the texture was so strange and the taste was indescribably horrible. Hands began to bang my back. I wanted to twist away but I coughed too much and had to bear their touch. I tried to find Bix’s hand, found it. Laughing, Bix put my world to rights and panic backed away. My throat felt sore and rough, my eyes filled with water and I hung my head to hide the flush of shame. I apologised with the highest form of Protocol I could manage. The formality and order of the word sequence calmed my racing pulse and my heartbeat slowed. I ventured a look around and saw with pleasure the expressionless faces around the table. I had redeemed myself. Control. I looked at Bix. His face was as quiet as I think it was possible for someone who laughed so much.
I tried the food a second time. A small mouthful as Bix advised. Held it in my mouth. It filled my mouth and not only stayed but seemed to expand. It intruded into the whole cavity. I was aware of roughness and grease. It stayed, nothing seemed to happen. Bix leant down and whispered, ‘It doesn’t dissolve; you must chew it and swallow.’
Startled, I ventured another glance at the others. Their mouths and jaws were moving vigorously, their throats moved, I looked up at Bix who nodded and smiled. I tried. Oh, Gran, you never warned me. It was horrid. It was disgusting. It was impossible. I filled my mind with my childhood mantra of Control. I willed my mouth to move the food around, made my tongue join in. When was it ready to swallow? I chewed until the lumps were all the same smooth texture, aware that some had hidden between my teeth. I tried to swallow and … oh, how do they do it so easily? The food mass was many sizes too large for my throat, too late I realised it was hurtling toward my lungs. It seemed my throat knew what to do. Crashing, as if a heavy lump of metal, the whole proceeded to fight within me. However, this time I managed, just, to maintain the dignity of the City. Oh, I longed for a wake-up cube to dissolve and rid me of this aftertaste that lingered for so long. How to dig out the tiny but intrusive pieces within my teeth? I was at a loss. I realised with dismay that food such as this would be served up every day. Oh, Gran!