Fiction

Skylights

GORDON NEVER RUNS his own errands but he banged on my door at 4 am and ordered me to catch the under-the-radar dawn flight to Emergent.

'I don't know if you've heard,' I said, standing in the doorway in my underpants, 'but there's a civil war going on over there.'

'You'll thank me later. This is the job of your life.'

'But I don't even have a passport.'

'Good. That'll prove that you were never there. Hurry up, I'll give you a lift.'

He drove like a maniac and dropped me with minutes to spare at an airfield I didn't know existed. It was a place I'd driven past once or twice, out near the abattoirs, but I'd always assumed that the twenty-foot stone wall hid a housing estate.

 

THE STORM STOPPED and the menacing cloud retreated over a hill. Steam rose from the drenched ground and fogged up my glasses. I took them off, wiped them, and when I put them back on I saw that a dirty old woman had stepped out of a hut.

'There she is,' the bloke in charge said. He'd been friendly, solicitous even, since he'd collected me from the tarmac of a base that didn't officially exist, but he refused to tell me his name. 'Spread out, you lot. Except you, doc. You know the drill, guys: no sudden moves, no loud noises. There's minefields everywhere and we don't want a stampede on our hands.'

'But...excuse me?' I said.

'Yes, doc?'

'That's not Dr Penn.'

'Mate, I've been tracking her for weeks. That's her.'

I looked again. The woman's hair was bone white. It set off in every direction, as if each strand was lashing out at the world. Her eyes bulged. The right one was bloodshot, and a rivulet of golden pus ran from it down her nose to her cracked upper lip. Her cheekbones were sunken. Veins criss-crossed her forehead. Her nose looked as if somebody had cut it up and glued the pieces back in random order. From the look of her, she might have done it herself.

I took a step forward.

'Whoa there, doc. She's not stable.'

'Isn't that why I'm here?'

'You just gotta let me neutralise the target first.'

'Neutralise her? What does that mean, exactly?'

'Nothing too awful, mate. I'm just gonna assist her to decide all by herself to come quietly.'

'Well, try not to hurt her.'

He looked pained. 'Mate, I'm a Cultural Liaison Officer. I...'

'I know what you are.'

'Our government operates under a strict non-aggression policy. I've got no jurisdiction to hurt her, even if I wanted to, which I don't. Not unless she tries to kill me.'

'Any idea what happened to her nose?'

'I didn't do it. Is that what you're asking me?'

'No, I...sorry.'

'First time in a warzone, eh? So let's do this quick, and get you home for dinner.' He took several steps forward, arms outstretched. 'Dr Penn, don't be scared. I'm here to help. I'm entirely unarmed.'

'You should strip off,' I said. 'Then she'd trust you.'

'Trust? She trusts nobody. That's why we need you to get her out of here.'

Dr Penn opened her mouth. Her breath turned to a sigh, then a sob, then a scream. But although her mouth was open so wide I thought her cheeks might split, she stood perfectly still, her face a mask, arms limp by her side.

'Dr Penn, this is Dr James Gass. He's come especially to look after you. If you'd care to come with us, Dr Gass can fix you up.'

She stepped back into the doorway of the hut. Her bloodshot eye lit up the gloom enough for me to see that her shoulders were heaving. 'Careful,' I said. 'She's crying.'

'Dr Penn, I must formally advise you that we are taking you into non-military custody. Your government-in-exile agrees, our government agrees, the Americans agree, and I'm sure deep down you agree that you need a rest. Best to get away from all this.'

She launched herself forward and in an instant she had the Cultural Liaison Officer pinned. She clawed at his face but, one by one, her fingernails snapped and flew harmlessly about. The tips of her fingers began to bleed. She groaned, rolled onto her back, closed her eyes and allowed herself to sink into the muddy ground.

The officer quickly freed his arms and wrapped them tight around her. The others gathered around and chanted in unison, 'Desist and stand down. Desist and stand down. If you persist in being violent and aggressive, I am authorised to act in lethal self-defence. Desist and stand down. Desist and stand down.'

They picked her up by the legs and arms, and carried her to the chopper. I trailed along behind, still not really believing it was her.

 

AFTER DR PENN and the Great Birde played themselves in To Steal Away in the Night, the film based on Dr Penn's memoirs of the first civil war, they possessed the most famous bottoms in the world.

We see them crouched behind a makeshift barricade, preparing to lead the assault on Parliament House, fondling each other's arses. It's one of the great love scenes in motion picture history. And then the Great Birde stands up and raises his arms like wings. He stares down bullets and bombs. His loyal followers, the peasants, the intellectuals who make up the Emergent Democratic Revolutionary Army, also stand. Dr Penn stands. To the sound of a thousand trumpets, they storm the building in slow motion. Their enemies, overwhelmed by this courage and conviction, give up the fight. Some of them throw their weapons away and dance in the street. Some of them turn and become the Great Birde's forward deployment.

I've watched that scene a thousand times. I've read every book, article and review ever written about the film, even all those impenetrable cultural studies theses. And I'm almost certain I'm the only person who knows the truth.

In the film, a second before the Great Birde rises, Dr Penn stops digging the fingers of her left hand into his buttocks. She flattens her palm and gives him the tiniest of shoves. Only then does he stand up, grasping his moment to become a crazy-brave legend.

 

'I DON'T BELIEVE IT,' I told Gordon. 'I simply don't believe that the Great Birde and Dr Penn would allow atrocities to occur on their watch, or endorse them, or benefit from them. Or that our government would help. Or the Americans, even. Or the French or the English or the Singaporeans or...'

'Trust me, it's true,' Gordon said.

'She's seen some terrible things, that much is plain. It's obvious she's suffering. But she's not crazy. Just exhausted.'

'Okay, okay.' He pulled a form from his desk drawer and handed it to me. 'I thought you'd be like this, so I went ahead and got you clearance. Limited clearance, mind you. But you'll be sorry – you're part of it now,' he said cheerfully.

He turned his monitor so I could see the screen. An image appeared of the Emergent village where I had collected Dr Penn. In the clearing adjacent to the communal hut, a row of peasants stood in rows waiting for boy and girl soldiers, grimy-haired thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds in black fatigues, to strike them down one by one with machetes. Because the film had no sound, the bloody carnage seemed unreal. Staged. Still, I felt ill. People shouldn't have to look at things like that.

'What did they do?' I said.

'Hmm?' Gordon asked. He was looking out the window.

'What did those people do wrong? Support the enemy?'

'No. No, I don't think so.'

'Then what?'

'It's hard to say.'

On the screen, a group of villagers turned and fled, straight into a minefield. 'Freshly laid,' Gordon said. I closed my eyes but Gordon turned the volume up and forced me to listen as the mines pop-popped and the people called out to the lost feet.

'Is this an isolated incident?'

'Isolated? If they ever win their war, I'm not sure there'll be anybody left to rule.' After a moment, he added, 'You'll want to see this bit.'

I opened my eyes. The camera swung from the minefield back to the clearing. It zoomed in on the Great Birde. He sat on a log, watching the killings with a look of utter boredom on his face. Beside him, Dr Penn sat cross-legged on the ground. Her hair was still black. Her eyes were dull, as if her mind had fled the scene and left her body behind. But there was a half-smile on her lips.

 

DR PENN SAT on the edge of her bed for two days, still dressed in her bloodstained fatigues. She stank the place out. She ate nothing but she sipped water often enough for her lips to stay moist, and for an invisible cocktail of drugs and remedies and electrolytes to leech into her bloodstream. She couldn't bear to capitulate entirely, but she surrendered to me when she drank the water.

On the third morning, I pumped lavender air into the room for two hours and then sent in Jenny and Carol, my best two Rehabilitation Officers.

'You're safe now,' Carol cooed in Dr Penn's ear. 'No one can hurt you now. No one can find you.'

'It's true.' Jenny said. 'We don't know anything about you. We don't even know your name. We're just here to make you feel better. But just so you know, if you resist, we won't hesitate to protect ourselves.'

'We're good at it, too.'

'But we're not going to hurt you. We're here to help. We're here for you.'

'So how about we start with a wash. Everybody feels better after they've had a nice warm shower.'

Jenny began unbuttoning Dr Penn's shirt. Dr Penn lifted an arm, as if to push her away, but left it there hanging, waiting for Jenny to pull her arm free of the shirt.

As I watched from the monitor in my office, Gordon bustled in accompanied by a red-faced man in a pinstripe suit.

'I'm in the middle of something here,' I said.

'Don't I know it,' Gordon said, winking. 'Carry on. I don't think you've met the Director before, have you? Minister, this is the Bright Young Spark I told you about.'

'Excellent, excellent,' the Director said. 'Keep up the good work. And pretend we're not here. Ah...is that the famous Dr Penn?'

Gordon and the Director crowded the monitor as Carol and Jenny went to work. First, they eased Dr Penn's shirt off. Underneath she wore a terribly soiled sports bra. They struggled with the straps for a moment, then Jenny produced a pair of scissors and cut the straps.

'Oh my,' the Director said.

'That's what I'm talking about,' Gordon murmured. 'We're witnessing history, gentlemen. History at its finest.'

Carol untied the knot that held Dr Penn's trousers up and they dropped to the ground, revealing a jagged scar that ran the length of her right inner thigh.

'What a tragedy,' the Director said. 'Do what's necessary to fix that.'

Carol tugged at Dr Penn's briefs, which ripped as they pulled free of her skin. The men either side of me breathed in perfect unison, heavy and warm into each of my ears.

Jenny led the naked Dr Penn to the shower. The water ran hot, and steam quickly filled the room.

'Oh no,' Gerard said. 'No, no, no.' He lunged forward and rubbed the monitor with his hand.

I pushed a button. 'What's happening in there?' I asked Carol.

'She's fallen asleep.'

 

'YOU'RE SAFE NOW,' I said.

Dr Penn looked up from her T-bone steak. 'Liar,' she said.

'Who do you think I am?'

'You are an interrogator for the illegitimate government of Emergent. You are going to break me and then dump me in the trash. So let's get on with it.'

'Come on. Let's go for a drive.'

I took her through suburban streets to the café district where she'd once held court, through the leafy grounds of the university where she'd gained her doctorate, past the bookshop where she'd worked (it was now a Nike seconds shop). She stayed silent until we turned onto Gray Street, Goosfield.

'No. I don't want to see this.'

'It'll be good for you.'

I pulled up outside a cottage. The sign attached to the white picket fence read: Here in this house, the famous emergent revolutionaries, the Great Birde and Dr Penn, lived when they were university students. Open 10 am – 5 pm, closed Mondays.

We stepped into the front hall. A grey-haired woman appeared. 'Welcome, welcome. Would you like a personalised guide for ten dollars extra?'

'Definitely,' Dr Penn said. 'He's paying.'

We took three steps down the hallway before the guide stopped us.

'Here we have a hatstand. Notice here the Great Birde's trademark conical hat. He wore it everywhere as a mark of solidarity with the peasants and to demonstrate that he knew how lucky he was to be studying here in this country.'

'He wore that thing to parties as a joke,' Dr Penn whispered to me. 'He used to bow and poke woman in the bum with it. He stashed his dope in the tip.'

'You'll also see a traditional Emergent scarf, a replica of the scarf Dr Penn wore to her university classes. Dr Penn wove all her own clothes in the traditional Emergent style.'

'501s and black T-shirts,' Dr Penn murmured, 'and a sundress for special occasions.'

We stepped into the kitchen. Laid out on the bench were two plates of papier mâché rice and sweet-sauced pork. 'Here you see the staple food of the Emergent peasantry. The Great Birde and Dr Penn made a point of eating only what poor people from their country would eat.'

'Ha! The Birde wouldn't have been caught dead eating such muck. Not without a decent bottle of red to wash it down with. Me, I preferred it. It brought back memories. But, then, I was actually born a peasant. Whereas the Birde...' She paused, and rolled her eyes affectionately. 'Well, he was born an aristocrat and he's never forgotten his roots.'

We moved to the bedroom. It was completely bare except for a candle.

'Everybody knows that the Great Birde and Dr Penn slept on bare floorboards to train their bodies for the struggle they knew was coming. Here, on this very wood, they held each other and plotted their people's future.'

'We had a queen-sized futon,' Dr Penn whispered. 'And Birde bought an antique chandelier. I used to lie there and stare up at it, counting the pieces of crystal until I fell asleep.'

In the lounge room, Dr Penn gazed at a fiercely coloured oil painting that covered one wall. In the painting, Dr Penn, bleeding profusely from a cut under the eye, her hair shimmering, her shirt tastefully ripped to reveal an appropriate amount of heaving bosom, crawls through heavy gunfire to retrieve a wounded colleague.

'I had that poster on my wall when I was a teenager,' I said.

'I'm not surprised,' the guide said. 'Isn't she pretty. People say they are doing terrible things over there but I don't believe a word of it. Do you?'

A faint smile appeared on Dr Penn's face. She'd had the same smile when she watched the massacre of the villagers. 'I guess we'll never know,' she said.

 

I PULLED UP outside a pleasant-looking sandstone house in the leafy suburb of Dulwich.

'Are you going to let me go home?' she said.

'You can't go back. You don't want to go back.'

She nodded, wearily.

'Anyway,' I said. 'You haven't recovered. Not yet.'

'You'd be surprised,' she said, but her shoulders slumped and I knew the last of her resistance had dissolved.

'So, what now?' she said.

'Now, I'd like to tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a woman called Mavis Fletcher. She was an English schoolteacher. In certain lights, from certain angles, she bore a passing resemblance to the famous revolutionary Dr Penn.'

'No.'

'Hear me out. Mavis and her late husband, Lester, could not have children. After Lester died of a heart attack, Mavis kept working for a couple of years and then took early retirement. Mavis now lives a comfortable life. Everybody says she is the friendliest of souls. And gentle. She wouldn't hurt a fly – that's what people say.'

'These friends, are they old friends or new friends?'

'New friends. Her old friends think she's dead.'

'All of them?'

'All of them...Mavis lives in renovated house in a tree-lined street in a quiet suburb called Dulwich. She takes pleasure from the accessories in her new kitchen and the heated floor in the en suite, not to mention the simple joys of running water and flushing toilets. And she is free.'

'Free? It sounds like a prison to me.'

'But the room in the centre of Mavis's house is a study. She enters this room through a hidden door in the back of her walk-in wardrobe. In this room, she can be herself. Her real self. In this room, she can keep mementos and personal papers and books.'

'Does this room have a window?'

'No window. But it might have a skylight.'

'A skylight that opens?'

'I'm sure that's possible.'

Dr Birde sighed. 'Okay, okay...do you have the key? If this is no prison, I can let myself in.'

'The fridge is full. I'll visit in the morning.'

She was halfway across the lawn, junk mail from the letterbox under her arm, when I got out of the car and called out to her.

'You pushed him. Didn't you?'

'What? Pushed who?'

'You know what I'm talking about. Him. The Birde.'

She peered at me suspiciously and then smiled a full, open smile. 'I guess we'll never know,' she said.

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