The Page

A tale of intimacy and loss

Month: December, 2012

The Library

Old library staircase This seventeenth century writer interested him, and he was eagerly reading the selected excepts of poems in the thin blue-covered “essential read” booklet, already covered with his notes, paragraphs and sentences underlined, although his essay was not due for another week. He was sitting at his usual place, at the long library table of dark oak with the dark green leather strip in the middle, in the long reading room. The atmosphere was quiet and studious, the sounds of discrete footsteps absorbed by the thick walls and ancient wooden floor, and the heavy window curtains, the light projected by the individual lamps was soft and friendly: it was his favourite building in the whole town, civilised, not threatening, a place of study and reflection, where he felt himself. He lifted his gaze, and there, in front of him, she was looking at him, the beautiful green eyes resting on his face: she smiled, the beautiful smile of love, and how he loved those lips… – for a fraction of a second he no longer knew where he was, Melissa was there, perhaps for the first time, they usually met only outside, or in one of the little cafés: but he remembered, was he still in the old house where Gabrielle had been showing him her world, sitting on the sofa near the fire, or, here, seemingly, in the ancient reading room, and as he looked at his hands, he saw the young skin, the unblemished look of a pupil’s hands, of a fifteen year-old boy. Time was suspended: he looked up again, and Melissa was gone, the long table and his book, the seventeenth century poet – all gone.

He was standing in the little street, alone, everything was so dark. He looked for the old door: it was not there, anywhere to be seen, there was just a long wall. The sky was black, starless, and a light icy rain was beginning to fall.

He walked back, trying to retrace his steps: the narrow street and the houses looked different, even darker than what he remembered. But how long had he stayed in Gabrielle’s house? He looked at his watch: he couldn’t have been inside more than one hour, perhaps even less… He thought after walking for half an hour he’d taken the wrong direction, and nearly turned back. Then he heard his phone: it was Sarah, she was waiting for him at the tube station and had located him on her phone. His relief was immense… It took him another hour to get there and find his wife, who seemed to enjoy a look around the ethnic shops. She kissed him and took him home. He felt utterly exhausted. It was Christmas Eve.

At home they sat near the tree, silent. Julian had told his wife the whole story, the medieval street, the house, the “film” of Gabrielle’s world, Andromeda, the town, the library. Sarah had listened quietly, and had asked only few questions. They were both eager to leave answers, or more questions, till later. He suddenly felt more cheerful, opened a bottle of Loire wine, and they talked about the next day.

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A journey

The Girl from Nowhere For the first time the voice he heard, in his sleep, was not Melissa’s. The woman introduced herself as Gabrielle, Melissa’s teacher, and proceeded to explain where he would find her, in clear, geographical precision, courteous, but leaving no doubt that he was expected to attend. The message was delivered without preamble, as a matter of fact. That night Melissa did not talk to him. But she had previously said she wanted him to meet Gabrielle.

The date was three days hence, and he wanted to think about it, to discuss it with Sarah. Why meeting the teacher before the pupil, or was the pupil attending too? He was intrigued, a little excited, his mind considering all weird possibilities. If the whole story was an hoax he might discover who was at its origin. He may even get a glimpse of his friend, or someone related to her. He thought of the avatar – was there another way to describe that vision? – his sister Jane had met on Chi. What computer wizardry had created that encounter?

In the following three days he worked and trained. He was reading The Passage, a  tale of human madness and of the destruction of America. The book reminded him of The Stand, perhaps his favourite novel of the last thirty years. In The Passage, the character of Amy, the Girl from Nowhere, and ultimate saviour of mankind, was immensely attractive to Julian. As in The Stand, the primary cause of the disaster was military delusion and political ineptitude, a cocktail he recognised in his own country.

The night before the meeting, which was set in the evening at eight, Sarah and Julian talked about what they knew so far. Melissa, a friend of his school days, or pretending to be, had contacted him and continued to communicate with him, although so far never in person. Jane had seen someone claiming to be her, on a virtual world where Melissa had invited Julian. Through her Facebook page they knew – or were led to believe – that Melissa had been murdered some twenty years ago, which would make Melissa a ghost, or a pretend one. Yet Julian had been given detailed information, in his dreams, about Melissa’s studies and progress in mathematics and physics. Sarah thought that if Julian was to meet anyone, it would be whoever was behind the “tale” of Melissa. She wanted to play down the possibility of her husband meeting the actual Melissa. Julian agreed that the the most probable outcome was that a friend, or relation, of his dead friend would then explain why and perhaps how he had found himself the target of the story.

The following day he stayed at home, reading and meditating until the evening. Before leaving the house he dressed as he thought suited to the chilly walk that awaited him once he left the underground. The part of the city Gabrielle had indicated was not known to him. He got off the tube at an unknown station. The streets were crowded with late shoppers. The air was chilly and damp: he was pleased to be wearing his heavy parka and warm walking boots. He walked along the main street for half an hour, aware of the mix of ethnic shops and suburban squalor: the area may not have changed much since the last war, a home for newcomers, from far-away war-torn corners of the world. He thought of the evacuation of Cincinnati, narrated in The Passage.

As he was instructed he turned off into a quiet side street, which after two hundred yards exhibited a very different landscape of narrow town houses, evidently very old. He walked past a long brick wall with overhanging branches of yet older trees: a very strange contrast with the high street he just left. After ten or fifteen minutes the street appeared to narrow into a medieval looking lane, with a cobbled surface. The night grew darker, and the street lights were dimmer and far between. He looked for the number plate of the house. He nearly missed it, hardly visible, above the door of the thin facade of a very old house. The enamel of the plate appeared cracked and ancient. The house was in darkness. Following his brief he used the door hammer – an old brass object polished with age – and knocked twice. The sound seemed to be swallowed by the door. He then waited. There was no-one in the street, and the sky was hardly visible from the threshold of the house. After a few minutes the door opened silently on a dark corridor, and Julian walked in. As he took a few steps along the corridor he knew the door had shut silently behind him, in front of him there was a faint light.

Julian stopped, disorientated, listening to voices that appeared to be coming from inside the house, women’s voices, but not words he could understand. Suddenly he was in front of a closed door, with light filtering from underneath. The door opened: a short woman of indeterminate age was standing, inviting him through:

“Welcome Julian, I am sorry not to have met you at the front door – you must forgive an old historian, lost in her reveries…” The lady was smiling, gesturing to a comfortable-looking sofa facing a chimney. A large bay window gave a view of a garden in shadows. A bright wood-fire was burning in the chimney. “I am Gabrielle” continued his host. “I am very grateful you could come all the way to our little place, I find it more difficult to negotiate the city at this time of the year” she added with another bright smile. She sat on a chair facing the sofa and invited him to make himself comfortable. “Melissa’s making coffee” she said, “or would you rather have tea?” Julian replied in a shaky voice that coffee was fine. So, was Melissa living here?Gabrielle’s hair was a soft copper with grey streaks, she wore thick glasses that seemed to protect her clear blue eyes: the image of a mature, benevolent academic, or scientist.

“I know you are anxious to meet your friend, and I owe you some explanation. You see, I am very fond of Melissa, you could say I am her adoptive mother, if I may use these words…” Julian was trying to control his nerves: the house was silent, only Gabrielle’s voice, the crackling wood fire, and the sound of his own blood through this body. “I hope you have the time to listen to a long story, but tell me if you need a break, just stop me” she said looking at him with a gentle and protective look. “I will use some visuals to help you along the way”, but Julian felt he was falling into darkness: the room had dissolved, leaving him in infinite space, then he heard Gabrielle’s voice again: “I must first explain who I am and why I am here…”

Space was filled with a majestic view of a galaxy: Julian was trying to recall its name, when Gabrielle’s voice  resumed her narrative. The image – if it was that – was a high resolution three-dimensional view, of extraordinary clarity. The galaxy was slowly rotating, and bright spots, like explosions, appeared her and there in its midst. “This is where I come from. You call that area M31, or Andromeda. I know you may find it difficult to accept, and I will not try to convince you of anything, yet. But I have to be absolutely honest with you. My species is high on ethics – I think this is the right way to express it…” The view was changing, homing on a cluster of five stars, figures and symbols appeared around one of the stars, and Julian guessed it was some system of coordinates. The depth of the view was staggering. “This, Gabrielle said, is my home star, the equivalent for me of your sun, and as you see the planet system around it is not that different from yours, but there are have five stars, you could say, looking after my species”. Julian was now looking at a long perspective of perhaps twenty smaller bright spots of various diameters, rotating in a complex pattern around the stars: a planet system. He wondered if what he saw was a live view: he was no longer questioning Gabrielle’s words. The image changed slowly, zooming to show a silvery structure, visibly artificial, that reminded Julian of the Peï pyramid in the Louvre’s courtyard in Paris, but this was suspended in space and, probably much bigger. “Our species is also strong on engineering, but”, Gabrielle said, “for some time now, we have evolved a collective way of thinking everything. I just wanted you to see one of our early creations: this is quite old, although our sense of “old” is somewhat different from yours…” Now Julian was looking at a wide sweep of space, and another galaxy, seen from the edge, as gradually he realised that this was his galaxy: the Milky Way, seen from space, from a point possibly situated half way between it and Andromeda. “Julian: this shows you what you would see, travelling from my place to yours, as we are really neighbours, in cosmic terms. And, yes, the being you see has been visiting your world”. The view changed to one Julian recognised: the solar system, approached through the asteroid belt and Pluto. He saw the rings of Saturn, and Jupiter’s massive bulk, surrounded by the five moons. He was now aware of the extraordinary clarity of the image and wondered about the structure of the lens that had taken the photography or the film. As if reading his thoughts, Gabrielle continued: “ Those images are simplified, using filters specific for the human sight: I am showing you only a small fraction of the information held on those records”. The earth appeared, the familiar blue and white sphere, the liquid paradise he was the product of. “Now I suggest we make a pause” said Gabrielle, and you may have some questions for me.”

He was back in the room. The fire was burning. He said hesitantly: “How long have you been here, on our world, Gabrielle?” Gabrielle’s kind eyes were observing him, quietly and gently. Finally she replied: “I am a recent visitor, a mere five hundred years, but my kind has been observing and studying this world for much longer, let us say, since well before you came in”. With a sinking feeling Julian tried to gather his thoughts. “And how did you come across my friend?” Gabrielle was hesitant for some time. “Certain views I can show you, but please be patient. Shall we say we have started a journey? I am a historian, as I said to you earlier, when you came in. My job, is to gather facts and evidence on human development and evolution.”

Julian was now immersed in an aerial view, as if taken from a helicopter, of a small town. The image was again clear, as if in slow motion. He could see smoke rising from tall chimneys, a river, some old buildings. After a few minutes he realised this was his childhood town, where Melissa and him had lived all those years back. The “camera” was now zooming on familiar places, the town main square with the big lions, where the library was. The traffic was light, and Julian saw that the cars were vintage of his youth: this was a recorded film. Now the film accelerated, with sweeping views taken along narrow streets, as if whoever held the camera was riding through the air, almost touching the walls. He recognised the market place, the small park, and the canal. Tall trees were lining the canal: how well he knew this path! Small tears were running down his face. The view was now of a small lane bordered by crumbling walls and badly kept gardens. For some reason the camera showed a corner of the lane, covered with muddy grass and small stones, then froze. He was back in Gabrielle’s room. “That was where Melissa was murdered” said Gabrielle with a tender and sad tone of voice. “That is where I found her, too late to save her, but not late enough to be unable to save her… memories.”

Julian felt his heart sink into a well of ice and sorrow. “Are you saying that Melissa is really dead?” he managed to ask –  “She died, and she lives again” said Gabrielle calmly. Then Julian was aware of a presence next to him, close, on the sofa.

Wisdom and renewal

 Melissa was talking to him in his sleep about higher mathematics, about the marvels she was learning with her new teacher. Her new interest in physics amazed him, his recollection of her was of a rather simpler type of girl: how she had changed… But he was trying to follow, she was so keen for him to understand, she was talking with passion, of their future, of the new sense of her own existence, her search for him. She said she would never give him up, she was learning to achieve something: to reach him in his world, the world of the living.

Adoration Sarah and him had stopped calling her “the ghost”. For his wife, Melissa was “your friend”, or, when she felt playful, “your personal alien”. For him she was a new person, who inhabited the body – or more precisely – “a” body, for now inaccessible, so much like that of his long-dead school friend. The girl Melissa of his present had the memories, and much of the spirit, of the other Melissa, but she was a different being. Her difference was her modernity: she was a woman of the 21st, not 20th, century, despite the old fashion style of her Page. For a start the “modern” Melissa was talking to him in his sleep: talking, not appearing, and she was talking to convince, possibly even educate him. Her sentences were as clear as crystal, and, in the morning he remembered everything: what she said about her studies, her teacher Gabrielle, the new chapters of physics and mathematics she had just learnt. She was indeed busy, and seemed to absorb sophisticated mathematical and modern physics concepts and theories that were already beyond Julian’s grasp. He did not understand what she was leading at by telling him about her studies, and how it would allow her to “reach” him. Evidently she knew of a link between the two, between her new knowledge and “their” promised intimacy.

However he was no longer anxious about her, nor thinking about his “lost years”. She – or someone – had carefully edited her Page, which now was more accurate, and only contained what, to him, looked like original material. It also went beyond their “story”, which, for Julian, was reassuring. He visited her page regularly and had started to write on her wall. What he wrote was comments on what he’d heard in his sleep, reflections on the work she’d told him about. He’d checked some of the articles she quoted during her conversation, and it was all genuine. She was reading very recent papers on astrophysics, astronomy and quantum physics, that were far beyond the comprehension of a college girl, or even most graduate students. For he saw her as she was when he left: same age, same looks, same appearance to the living. And indeed Melissa had confirmed, via her Page, that she was as she had always been since her “return”, more than twenty years ago. Sadly – he thought – he could not meet her, or, at least he could not yet: in his dreams there was, always, an expectation that that “barrier” was not final, that Melissa would find a way. His rational mind was telling him it was all a fable, that there was no such thing as coming back from the dead. But the beautiful fact was he did not see it as that anymore, but rather, as a subtle reincarnation, one of these rare miracles of genetics that, once in a millennium, created an identical twin, but remote in time from the sibling. The first Melissa had died, of that he was certain, but someone who was very much like her, had been born, and was looking for him.

Sarah thought the two of them, her husband and whoever it was who was claiming the person of Melissa, suffered from a sweet delusion. She did not have a complete theory of what had happened in reality, but she imagined a friend of both of them, someone who had known them both in their youth, perhaps one of the “jealous” girls of Julian’s college memories, had somehow picked up Julian’s current whereabouts and created the “myth”: she would be Melissa, reconstructed and, ultimately, reincarnated. Julian was sharing all his dreams with his wife, so that Sarah, herself not a mediocre physicist, knew of Melissa’s work and had concluded that the person behind it all was a serious scientist or mathematician. In her view this confirmed the prosaic nature of the phenomenon Melissa: a real living human being, who was pursuing something that might have started as a joke, or a bet. But Sarah would not speculate where this may lead to: she was just keeping note of what Julian told her about the night’s voice.

So Julian was deep in his work, and was beginning to follow a new routine. His dreams recurred once or twice a week, which was enough to keep his mind awake to Melissa’s progress, without becoming obsessive. Most of his awake time he did not think too much of his friend, but concentrated on his writing, and on his wife. Then, one night, Melissa said she wanted him to meet her teacher, Gabrielle.

A gentle creature

M31Parsecs from Earth, somewhere in the Andromeda nebulae, also known to mankind as NGC 224, the creature Melissa knew as the woman Gabrielle, her Angel, was in deep computation with her coven. To say “she” was there, is however a misnomer: her mind – that second order system of connected gas synapses no human physicist or neurology expert would have recognised as a brain – was in a vortex of communication with a trillion others, such as herself.

This did not happen often, but the circumstances were exceptional. For the first time, ever, on a small world, among billions of others “they” had visited in the course of their long history of exploration, a primitive creature had developed a sense, that hitherto “they” had only observed in a handful of others, all much more advanced in the scale of evolution than her own species was.  The girl Melissa, the small, fragile  creature that Gabrielle had brought back from the dead, was beginning to listen to the vortex. Not every mind in the coven was enthusiastic about this development. Earth, a mediocre size planet of the Sol system, on the edge of the galaxy human beings call the Milky Way, and a neighbour of Andromeda, was host to a species, who for many in the coven, was the epitome of how wrong evolution can be, a cruel, primitive people, who care neither for themselves nor their world, and who, in the future, few believed would care for their galactic neighbours.

Gabrielle was arguing that even if only one such being was showing an extraordinary property, a promise of a change in the species’ evolution towards a brighter future, then it was a duty to foster such a change, nurture its success. The opposition was strong, and many posted the view that they should leave that world to its destiny, and its inhabitants to their unavoidable fate: self-destruction. They had good arguments. Recent history – that is that of a few millennia – showed no hope whatsoever of anything other than a ruthless disregard for life, and the life of the mind. Passionately Gabrielle countered such arguments citing literature, the human arts, their courageous efforts to eradicate diseases and nature catastrophes. She knew there was more at stake than Melissa’s fate: the coven could vote for a total evacuation, and, although this would take much longer, the eradication of the species.

She was questioned again and again on the lessons of her long sojourn on Earth – after all, she was one of the rare specialists to have stayed there, after Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Her immense computational power struggled to keep up with the questions. The coven would not reach a decision for some time yet. Their collective brain, that huge cluster of trillions of associations, would still take time for reflection after all the known facts had been processed.

Back in Melissa’s world, she, and a short bespectacled woman were in deep discussion too. Melissa was smiling, she knew she would meet her lover soon. All thanks to Lagrangian mathematics. Gabrielle felt very close to that human being, dangerously close.

Battlefield

AlienMost of us left when you started exploding nukes, only a handful of historians and specialists remained, and I was one of them. Explaining the horror we felt is probably beyond my abilities in your language. Suffice to say that we have been around, on your world, for at least half a millennium of your time, but this was beyond all the horrors we had seen before, worse than the sack of Beijing, worse than Borodino, worse than Verdun, even worse than Stalingrad: wanton destruction of a defenceless “enemy”.

Still my job was, still is, to bear witness, observe, document and ensure all the evidence was collected, so that one day, perhaps soon, a decision could be made – should we let you continue killing each other, or should we put an end to it, for the sake of the rest of us. It had happened before, but, of course, you have no knowledge of it, as this was well before you, far away…

That year I was researching what you call “modern history” in that small town, in the middle of what has been, through your ages, a battlefield. Humans have been butchering each other on that plain since the stone age. Savage battles took place there, a mere few years before, when you started using the nascent power of your new industries to forge weapons. Already we were appalled then, silent witnesses to inept massacres. But what you will later called the First World War – more of a sinister civil war in our view –  was merely a harbinger of worse to come.

So it was that one evening, I was musing around the town, looking at buildings, taking scans of artefacts buried in the ground, listening to the rich electromagnetic and psychic mix always arising from human settlements. I came across a little lane, and immediately I could hear the familiar sad tune, a dying human being, in the thralls of a violent end. How often have we been there: listening to the cacophony of death. I know you would not understand: our perceptions are shaped by the quality of our sensors, and in that domain there is simply no comparison between us. You still have differentiated limited senses that, at this stage in your evolution, allow you to ignore most of what goes on around you – fortunately, since your brains are not yet able to engineer the filters necessary for clarity and processing.

I easily located the soon to be dead being: a young woman who was lying in a pool of her blood in an unlit corner of the lane. The mix of pain, longing and other violent feelings she emitted surprised me, a veteran of many such observations. Her forearms had been cut deep, and she had already lost a lot of blood. Some beast had strangled her and she was hardly breathing when I arrived. Even I could not have saved her. I knew that, within perhaps a few seconds of her time, she would die, and all those memories, thoughts, beliefs would disappear. I just took a snap decision to save that precious load, and scanned her mind, an operation that took longer than I thought, so that I had to sustain her a little, to ensure I had captured everything. She had beautiful green eyes – human beings are sometimes stunningly attractive. Whether she realised I was there I am not sure, but suddenly her body was quieter, and before her heartbeat disappeared, I took a sample of her genetic and endocrine material. Other humans were around nearby and I had to leave. As a rule we avoid unnecessary contacts.

We rarely intervene: we are, as you would say, mere scientists. Doing good, as you understand it, is a concept we don’t fully apprehend in your context, still now. How can the most ferocious and pitiless species in the known universe have, at the same time, that travesty of “morality”? In any case, we cannot fully recreate a human being, not perfectly. We can restore her mind, recreate the body, but there is always something missing, as if, at the time of death, something had escaped, irretrievably.

Her name is Melissa, she was about twenty human years old when she was murdered. We get on well. She has a fatal longing for that boy she knew, and step by step, she coerced me in finding him. I am not sure it is a good idea. But she was so excited when we did. I helped her with the technology, so much had already changed by the time she reached again the age at her death. Surprisingly, not many of you have yet realised the power of some of your own creations. For example the fact you have developed simulators, evidently still quite crude, that mimic real life. In my experience this is just a beginning – as a matter of fact, as so often in your short history, it starts with “games”. You excel at that: wars and games…

Poor girl: I am fond of her, her fragility, even now, when she is, by human standards anyway, pretty close to immortality. I know that she’s trying to contact him, see him, and it worries me a little: I am, after all, responsible for bringing her back from the dead.

Her World

two-facesIn her world there is no real peace, only the struggle for awareness, her refusal to fall back into nothingness, into the total darkness which is worse than dying, the obliteration of her soul.

She does not mean harm to any of them, neither to the girl Jane – ah! how Jane reminds her of herself, the young Melissa, no longer the child, and yet for most, a full woman, but she knew how little of that was true – nor to Julian, whose boyhood she had sought to protect, against himself, against the jealous others, and, maybe, though she would not have admitted it at the time, against herself, her smothering love.

Nor does she wish any harm to the woman, to the woman Sarah, who owns Julian, who dominates his life, the guardian of his body, and of his soul. But she knows: Sarah is the enemy, perhaps a reincarnation of the girl she once saw, walking next to Julian, once, and, yes, how painful that memory is, even now… And how sharp was the pain of jealousy when she saw them. She said nothing, but wears the deep open wound in her heart.

What she hopes, is to see him, to see his face, to tell him, perhaps, in her own words, that she has forgiven, that if, for her, time stopped then, as he stepped out of her life, she understands that his life is his. Could he make a little place for her, for the wraith that used to be Melissa? She does not need much space, she lives in between, in the unreality of her memories – and his.

She does not know how to achieve this. Finding him took so much pain, a journey she could not describe, only evoke in fragments, pictures she somehow rescued from the wreckage, and things she finds on those waves that Julian appears keen to surf…

Chi… this is what she has to do, try again to attract him there, perhaps early morning, before its beaches are invaded by the young people who love its sand, their beautiful bodies, and the waves… The girl Jane will help her…

Wax VanitasJulian ~ I am still very affected by what we saw on Melissa’s page, despite Sarah’s continuing doubts about its authenticity. Can it be an hoax? Is there even any correlation at all between the page and Jane’s encounter on the island, or just a weird coincidence? I am confused, but the one thing I do not doubt is Melissa’s death, so long ago. Worse still is the fact that memories I had wanted buried for ever in the deepest cellars of my mind, have come back to me, intact, in the sombre colours of nightmares. The years when Melissa and I walked those streets, in the old town, are happy years for me, at least by comparison with what followed: that time of loneliness and horror I wanted to forget for ever.

Yet, some of the posts on the page are incorrect. I did notice some errors of names  of streets or buildings, and some photographs have just been lifted from current sites on the web. For example the picture of Chi is not original work, such as the screenshots Jane took, but an existing view from one of the Second Life web sites. Other material is manifestly genuine, including the pictures of me and my class. So it may well be that someone – someone alive now, who may have known Melissa, has in some way got possession of some of her photographs and of her biography, and constructed that page. But for what purpose, and why attracting my attention to it?

Could it be some relation? I cannot recall if Melissa had siblings. Some facts have escaped my memories completely. But others are clearly engraved, as if it was yesterday…

So I am counterattacking, determined not to let myself be depressed: I am exercising ferociously, have cut down on booze, and I am running ten kilometres twice a week. Jane calls frequently, making sure I am not hiding in my corner, and also to chat with Sarah.

In the night

MelissaHis interest in photography is boosted by his sister’s evident talent, and his curiosity for her work. Now he notices far more the light variations during the day, the subtle changes of hue and shifting skies’ s reflections that are so typical of northern climates. Jane is amused by his renewed passion. He is also taking a close interest in portraits. She, without consulting him, started taking nude pictures of Sarah a year ago, and her visits are a chance for them to continue with this project. They then disappear in Sarah’s room, and even sometime the study, after kicking Julian out and locking the door. In summer they have been seen taking shots out there, in the beautiful garden, away from preying eyes. He’s not upset by it, intrigued perhaps, and, more than ever, curious. The pictures are all black and white, and do more than justice to his wife’s beautiful body. At the beginning he was startled by the erotic style of Jane’s work, but what did he expect: two gorgeous women accomplice in making art? He was wondering if Sarah, in turn, was taking pictures of Jane, but he never asked. Since he was not briefed, nor invited to participate, he chose to remain quiet on the subject, and just enjoy what he is invited to look at.

The incident of the screen shots on Chi no longer worries Julian. He has made up his mind that it was merely an accident of simulation, or perhaps even editing. After Jane’s visit he feels rejuvenated, and full of new ideas. It has given a boost to his libido too, not that he’s ever short of that, but somehow the presence of both Sarah and Jane in his house inspires him. Sarah finds it hilarious, and teases him about it.  One night, before Jane left, he woke up from some dream, and notices that Sarah is no longer in bed. It did not bother him but, feeling thirsty, he walks downstairs to the kitchen for a drink of water. Sarah is nowhere to be seen, not in the back-room, nor in the lounge, nor the bathrooms. The only place where she could be, Julian concludes, is in Jane’s room. Indeed he could hear, walking past Jane’s door, a low sound of giggles. He smiles and goes back to bed, falling back into sleep immediately.

He finds a new inspiration for the novel too, writing for long hours non-stop, to the extent of neglecting his weekly visits to the gym, as he realises quickly by checking his weight. He knows that his wife won’t let him put on weight and get fat: she would immediately impose the kind of spartan regime she can very well design for her “boy”. So he reorganises his time, making space for gym and running, and still making the best of day light hours for his writing. He’s almost forgotten about the phone call, and the message on his page.

Then, one day, as he checks his wall, he incidentally clicks on the link that did not work, on the message “she” had left. And this time it works. It takes him straight to “her” Page.

He hesitates, as if on the edge of a deep fault, unable to see how far he would fall. Then he plunges…

At first he is lost. His own page is minimalist. “Her” wall appears to be densely packed, with an impressive list of “friends” and pictures. He looks at her profile picture. The red hair, the young face, the green eyes, the full lips, a simple flowered blouse… a beautiful young woman, a little old-fashion. Something stirs at the deep end of his memories…  That picture looks strangely familiar, but still he cannot recall who she is. He decides to read her profile. “She” has listed as much as she could, her schools, where she lived, where she worked.

She was born two years before him, near the town where he spent most of his childhood. She’s also attended the same high school. He pauses. Suddenly her name comes to him: Melissa. Something attracts him on Melissa’s page. One of her pictures is that of an adolescent, fresh-faced, athletic, standing in front of what looks like a school entrance with other youngsters. Julian looks at the picture, heart beating, suddenly transported in time. It was his school, and that young man is him, probably shortly before he left for the army – all those years back. He realises suddenly that Sarah is standing behind him: “An old flame has caught up with you?” she asks tenderly, with a touch of concern in her voice.

There is something else on Melissa’s page, a link to a location with a photograph: a place called Chi.

Julian pauses again, his mind a whirlpool of conflicting feelings and memories. Then, as he sits still, his mind suddenly sees her, the girl at the school gate, waiting for him, tall and smiling. A wave of memories submerges him: the old town, the medieval streets, the library where he worked and studied, the provincial railway station, the ugly buildings from the post-war period, the school, the calm waters of the canal… and Melissa: his forgotten friend, his adolescence sweetheart. What happened to her? And why all that secrecy? Why could not she just approach him, write to him, say who she was? Reading his mind Sarah says: “Maybe she has a grudge?”

Nostalgia has overcome Julian, and thousands of pictures are flashing past his eyes: the small shops, the cathedral, Mel at the swimming pool, her breasts, him boxing to pulp that big thug, who had insulted her, their walks along the river, his mother asking him: who is that tall girl she saw with him at the market… A sudden dread seizes him: where is Melissa now? And this page, what is the meaning of it? He takes a closer look: the friends listed on her page are all of her, his, generation, and there is something else: when he tries to follow the links they all lead to the same message: he is not allowed to see their profiles. “She’s protecting their privacy” Sarah says calmly.

Something else attracts Julian’s attention: there are notes, scores of them, some by Melissa.

For a second he hesitates, then starts reading.

The early notes sweep through three years of her life: the years they have been “together”, his school years, before the war and the world took him away.  Melissa has written at first a sort of journal, recounting their first meeting, their first kiss, her hopes, their walks, the many kisses that had followed, the tender touches, her wondering why he seems to be so gentle, almost shy, with her, and such a tiger with the others, whoever they are. She guesses at his internal violence, the turmoil in his young mind. She, who is ready to give him everything, admits to her puzzlement, at times her irritation. And yet she is writing about the delight of those days, their intimacy, his way of ignoring the jealous looks, the sly comments of the other girls. His way also to fight for her, suddenly changed, his fists tight, his jaws hardened, the pitiless concentration of a street fighter. She has made it her mission to win him over, and to give him happiness – for ever, her virgin lover. The last sad note is of a walk they take along the river, when he speaks to her of the war, and of a man’s duty. She was puzzled, and worried. Then the tone of the notes change. Melissa is alone, he is gone, silent, with hardly a good bye.

At first she is expecting him to write, perhaps even to visit. She tries to talk to some of his friends, those who, she thought, would be willing to share their knowledge of where he might be. No-one she spoke to knew.  In desperation she decides to contact his parents. His mother only says that her son has gone to fight. Neither she nor Julian’s dad would  give away anything else. Mel is desperate.

There is only one country he could have gone to, and this is beyond Mel’s reach, a hellhole of murder, torture and destruction, closed to anyone not directly involved with the fighting. At night she cries, remembering the days, with him, with him alive, their love. Then the notes stop being a journal. It is as if someone else has taken over, and is reporting, factually, without any feeling.

The first note is a newspaper extract. 

Julian turns pale as a wraith. Sarah, suddenly aware of a deadly silence, looks up: her husband is crying. Silent, cold tears, tears of despair. She looks at the screen.

The note states that the body of Ms Melissa xxx, daughter of Mr and Mrs xxx of a local village, aged nineteen, has been found at dawn, in a small lane near a night club where she was seen dancing with several men two hours earlier.  She was strangled by unknown assailants and her wrists cut. 

There is a date: Melissa was murdered twenty years earlier.

Reflection

She comes to us whenever she is in the country: my sister never misses an opportunity to see me, and, perhaps, even closer to her heart, Sarah. But those visits are now far and few between, for Jane is a busy lady. So it is a real, deep pleasure to be with both of them tonight, soaking the warmth of the fire, admiring them, my mind slowly drifting to pink clouds and sunsets, helped by my whisky’s glass.

“The funny thing, Jane is saying, is that I did take pictures, several shots of the shore, where “she” was – and none of them came out: there is no-one there”.  She shows us several prints of a sandy beach in the sunset: the waves are leaking the sand, shiny silver beads with reflects of gold, nearby surfboards have been left, in good order, lined up to dry on the beach till the next day. Jane explains that Chi is a surfer’s paradise. Competitions are held there almost every week of the year. There is an entire community which is very active: young and beautiful residents who can express their passion at several spots around the island. “I came in through the main teleport, explains my sister, in the temple area. There was no-one around, or so I thought.” Sarah is listening, her sight firmly fixed on Jane’s lips, smiling.

“Then, I ask, how did you know she would be there?” Jane remains silent, reflecting, and after a few seconds, then says that she did not know, it just happened. “I walked along a little path that leads from a statue of the Buddha, on the edge of the forest, towards the beach. As I walk down a flight of steps I was looking at the sea and the sunset reflections. She was standing there, at the edge of the water, and she said that she had been there for some time. Maybe it was luck?” Sarah looks at me and asks: “Could it be that it has nothing to do with the phone call, Julian?” “Hardly, I reply, if it had been a chance encounter “she” would not have known Jane’s name”. “Besides, Jane agrees, “she” mentions you immediately.”

We remain silent, I look again at the beautiful beach on Jane’s pictures. After a while I become aware of the two of them chatting quietly: I must have drifted into some dream. “You must have friends there who know Julian, and that you are brother and sister, Sarah’s saying, so it may have been a silly prank. As to the pictures, those are screenshots, and what they show is that at the time you punch that key, there was no-one there. It must be explainable…” Jane remains silent. Suddenly it occurred to me that I may have exposed my sister, my beloved sister, to some danger. “Did you feel threatened?” I ask Jane in a quiet voice. “I got a fright when I first saw her, I did not expect to see anyone. And then “she” did not appear “solid”, more like a mirage, and “she” grew more tangible as we spoke.”

A bell chimes in the kitchen. “Dinner must be ready, says Sarah with a smile, Julian, have you got the wine sorted?” We laugh, and stand up, Jane hugs me tight, as if to reassure me…

We forget Chi and, at the table, chat amiably about Jane’s travels, our summer plans, and my novel. Jane wants to know about the plot, the characters, the style. Sarah smiles and tell her that she, Jane, must be in it, as the muse of the poet. Jane laughs: she is not sure she would qualify! Then Jane asks Sarah if she figures in the novel too. Sarah turns to me: “Only Julian can say about that” she teases. “I think they may be a few ghosts in there too” she adds and then kisses me on the cheek.

And then the phone rings. I hesitate, feeling Sarah’s gaze toward me. “Do you want me to answer?” she says after a time. “No, just now I don’t want anyone to disturb our evening”. And we continue chatting, and the caller quickly gives up.

Dinner was perfect, the wine sumptuous. We retire to the back room, facing the garden and the full moon. The fire is burning bright. In the quiet of the house, the only sound the logs crackling in the flames, as Sarah and Jane indulge in a chaste cuddle on the sofa, my anxiety of the past weeks leaves me. The cloud somehow dissolves in my mind. We can hear an owl hunting in the garden, near the oak trees, I expect a sharp frost tonight. I won’t visit Chi anytime soon. I am too old to learn surfing now…

A small island

She did it for her brother, as she could see he was anxious, without knowing why. So she came to Chi. She was aware of the location, a small island dedicated to meditation and peace, open to surfers and the devoted. Once she had visited a temple there, with a friend.

Hesitantly she looked up towards the statue, the dark bronze of the goddess, dominating this corner of the island. In front of her the jungle. Behind her she could hear the distant sound of waves. Now she forced herself to walk towards the shore, her bare feet light on the cold stones, smooth and ancient, polished by centuries of footsteps. She was feeling the evening chill through her light dress. On both sides of her stood statues and small temples. A torch was burning at the end of the path, below a tall wooden portal. Steps led down to the beach. Near the portal she saw a small teleport. She walked down the steps, soon feeling the sand still warm under her feet. The sun was now a red disk low on the horizon. She heard the waves crashing on the shore: big rollers that the surfers must enjoy riding during the day… She walked a bit further, now in semi darkness, shivered a little… She was on her own, or so she thought. She let her eyes adapt to the obscurity around her. Then she saw the dark silhouette, on the water edge, a hooded figure, immobile and softly shimmering in the dying light…

“Come closer Jane ” said a woman voice, as if from a far distance behind the hooded shape. Jane  felt a sense of dread but obeyed, as if in a dream. She saw a tall woman wrapped in a black robe, who soon lifted her hood a little. A mass of red hair framed a beautiful sombre face still in the shadow. Jane saw the eyes, fixed on her: a deep darkness, black on black, absorbing all light. The woman smiled, Jane was petrified. Who was that woman? Her brother had been so unspecific.

She was aware of a small fire burning brightly further down the beach, in the distance. Looking up she saw the woman’s eyes, now two soft emerald orbs. The face was smiling, a woman’s gentle smile, and looking deep in Jane’s eyes. Jane observed the full lips. Gathering her courage she said: “ That’s a cool avatar you got there, but you really frightened me”

Silence followed. Seconds, then perhaps minutes passed. The voice suddenly said: “It was not my intention to frighten you, you see, I have been standing here for sometime. But I will share a secret with you, Jane: this is not my avatar, it is me”.  And then she added: “You should know your brother and I were once very close, a long time ago.”  Jane realised the shape looked now more solid, more human. The woman moves slowly closer to Jane. “Is it you who are stalking my brother?” Jane daring to ask. Those bright emerald eyes were now close to Jane’s face.

“My name is Melissa” the woman said, smiling. “Your brother and I have a date, are you his messenger?”

Streets

DestinyI am walking down this well trodden street, the year is coming to an end. The air is chill, the flow of commuters beginning to ebb. Regent street, Oxford street and Soho are not my favourite place in the capital, that goes probably to Bloomsbury and its little bookshops, yet I am always, sooner or later, coming back here. Some places have a special resonance, an aura of recent or not so recent memories that I cannot help but cultivating, as if, some day, they could become useful.

So it is for the Apple store, an unavoidable visit if I happen to be around Oxford Circus. This morning I am looking at the new laptops, sculpted objects of sheer beauty. I love all toys, tools, cameras, computers, engineered objects that are the wonderful witnesses of our age. In some mysterious ways those human creations have as much erotic appeal as other “toys”, and my wife, Sarah, says that I am a covert tool fetichist: I love drills and screwdrivers, engines and hard disks… Smiling to myself I walk into the store, greeted by youth and  more smiles. The new laptop stands there, silvery, chiselled, on one of the glass tables, surrounded by a group of excited boys and girls. I take a walk around the store, waiting for the little crowd to disperse.

Then my phone rings. I am surprised, who could be calling me at this hour in the morning? I have left the business behind for nearly a year now. It’s a distant voice which I do not recognise, a woman voice. “I have left a message on your wall” she says, and rings up. A message? I walk across to look at keyboards. I intend to get a wireless one, a small white and light object I can use with my Mac and my Pad, the tools of the trade.

My wall? I have only one Facebook page, dedicated to my novel, or rather my novel to be. It is public, but not that interesting. There is very little on it, a brief synopsis, some characters sketches. I walk back to admire the laptop, a young female assistant decides to chat me up, talking soberly about the wonders of the screen, its resolution, the power to transform photo editing. How did she guess I was a photographer? Maybe she did not, I just look the part for being able to afford the premium price for this Mac. Indeed I am, but I take those decisions, buying or not, very slowly, I browse for ever. We talk amiably for a few minutes. That phone call irritated me. I loathe unsolicited contacts without reasons. But I have also decided to postpone a decision about the beautiful Mac….

Sarah’s out until the evening. My plan for the rest of the day is to go and exercise, and then write, until she comes home. I walk back to Charing Cross, now less crowded than when I arrived earlier. Waiting for my train I check my page. There is indeed a message: “Meet you on the shore in Chi.” Meet who, and where the hell is Chi? And when!? I have ten minutes to kill before the train leaves. I think it’s a joke, or, perhaps, I want to believe it’s a joke.

I am intrigued, curiosity has succeeded to annoyance, as my mind refuses to forget. Yet I have plenty of other, more important, subjects to think about. The novel is not progressing very far, not by lack of motivation, but I have not really put into place the filters for all those other distractions that are as many obstacles to concentration. People write to me, former colleagues, old customers, and as Sarah says, ghosts from my past! I don’t know about ghosts, the majority of the letters and messages are about money… I am creating different mail boxes for different purposes, not least since I will soon need a writer’s “identity” to conduct that side of the business. Did I say “that side”? Well, this must be a distortion, some lapsus linguae, from the past. This, IS the business, and I should forget about much else…

But I can’t, people, trees, rivers, mountains… and much else besides, occupy my brain. Recently I have been thinking more about my “little” sister Jane. Perhaps I should introduce her properly to you, reader, since she has, much later on, an important role in this story. Jane is my younger sister, I used to say by “baby sis”. Baby she’s no longer, but a tall and beautiful young woman, successful in her modelling career, great friend of my wife, and also great traveller and photographer.  Jane is a long standing Second Life resident, a world she considers as part of her business, where she promotes herself and her art. She’s often invited me to visit, but I never found the time nor the interest: I’d rather speak with Jane face to face. In reality the geek in me fears showing inadequacy in front of a woman I much admire, be she my sister, perhaps, particularly since she is my dear sister. It’s come to my wandering mind that Jane might know  what and where “Chi” might be. And I prefer to ask her, even at the risk of being smiled at, than to conduct a search for it, which I expect to turn out frustrating.

The mysterious caller did leave a link on my wall. But this led to nowhere, just a “404” error. So I am no more advanced than I was after receiver the call a few weeks back. In the meantime Sarah and I have started to plan next year’s summer holiday. There is nothing like the beginning of winter to think about summer! And for us it is a rite. Fact is, summers are the height of our loving life, I dare say, erotic life. You see, we take to the hills, to the rocks, sometime to difficult summits… and yes, those are our preferred background for loving, the higher and the more remote the better. So, as it were, planning for those evasions, is a sort of foreplay, a prelude. This takes time, although we tend to gravitate – is this the right word? – In the same region. Mountains and sun worshippers we are.