Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A former self speaks 2: another sketch utopia

I've found another one...

Rint: a utopia

I first met Josef Rint in a shanty-town in old Bombay. His door - soldered together out of roadsigns - was the fourth I’d banged on that morning, I was sweating in the orange community-service bomber-jacket the supervisor’d given me, and I was beginning to think that vee-jail couldn’t be that bad. I’d been caught with six gees of knock-off anti-depressants, only a few days before the medbiz’s exclusivity ran out, and the expert-system’d plea-bargained me down to ‘volunteering’ to do this Red Cross survey. The option was a year subjective in a monchrome virtual space. A year to me, two hours to everyone else. But just try getting health insurance after your metabolics’ve been amped that high.

I flicked a mozzy off the scratched screen of my clipboard, and banged on the door again, just as Rint yanked it open. He looked like Karl Marx after years of solvent abuse, and I could’ve snapped him in two – I was big then too, but it used to be muscle – but he still made me feel like some tribal beggar kid. We looked at each other. The clipboard booted up, and I started out – “Good morning. I wonder if you’d mind if I asked you a few questions. It won’t take long.” – as if this guy had anything to do beyond going and getting his hand-out at the reprocessor station. He shrugged, asked me in. We sat down on a couple of cushions made from salvaged bubblewrap, and he made tea. Not chai, black tea made by pouring boiling water on leaves. Tasted like engine oil, but I didn’t like to say.

I can’t remember how we got talking, but by the time the clipboard crashed the second time, and the shadow of the supertower out in the bay’d covered the whole shanty town, and I was almost getting a taste for the tea, we were like old schoolfriends at a reunion. Rint invited me back for the next day. Said he had a story to tell me.

I signed off with the supervisor, went to the bank to pick up that month’s trust money, got the usual lecture from the manager – an old friend of my father’s – and headed back to my flat. I spent the evening drinking cheap beer and faking survey results, and I was there at Rint’s door good and early next morning, only a little hung over. This is his story:

After the old Europe fell to bits, there were thousands of places like the one Rint grew up in – microrepublics, back-to-nature citadels, strong-man chiefdoms. His was some sort of neo-Marxist mir, a fishing-in-the-morning, criticism-in-the-afternoon commune. He mostly remembered dinners with the whole village, like a cross between a union-meeting and a barquiz – “I ask our younger comrades – what is commodity fetishism?”

He never told me exactly where it was – security habits die hard – but I’m guessing Bohemia somewhere. The short version is, that the commune were tough guys – Rint knew judo and could field-strip an AK blindfold by the time he was eight – but that they still got smashed by some raiders, and Rint and three other teens found themselves, with nothing but what they’d managed to grab while running, heading north in bitter, mountainous country.

So far, this could be any of a thousand stories, most of them never told. Plenty started again with less. There’s a guy bossing half of what used to be Poland who started with the same. But most of the lost people just quietly died.

Rint’s story’s different because of what he and his friends found in the mountains. This is the place where you’re going to stop believing me, but I’ll swear to this at least – Rint believed what he told me, and I’m telling it to you just the same.

It was Rint’s sister Jana who spotted it first. The gate – a shimmering between two pines in a hanging valley. No big deal for someone brought up on blockbuster special effects, but plenty for someone who’s idea of light entertainment was Battleship Potempkin projected onto a sheet in the refectory. They moved up to it two-by-two, ready to give covering fire, the way they’d been taught. Rint, Onza and Jana had AKs, big blunt Sascha had a beaten-up SA80. He went forward first, stepped into the shimmering, and disappeared without fuss. Jana yelled and charged after him, to vanish the same. Rint had to pick Onza up by his webbing and throw him through, before he took a breath and followed. He told me, ashamed, that he thought of running and forgetting it.

On the other side, the world had changed. Same splintered mountains, even the same saddleback peak they’d been heading for, but a thicker forest – pine, feathered moss ground-cover, bilberries, ‘shrooms – and where there’d been an abandoned village slumping down the valley side, three terraces of garden surrounded a low, white, windowless dome. They only had a few seconds to wonder before the hum they’d been hearing turned out to be the sound of engines.

Three vehicles were splashing along the middle of the shallow stream at the bottom of the valley, two trikes and what Rint called a baba-yaga house – a two-storey caravan on beetle-like legs. All were the same plastic white as the dome. Rint and the others did what they knew to do – dived for cover, guessed the distance and set their sights, and tried to secure a line of retreat, but the shimmer was gone. A white bird hovered over their position, nearly drawing fire from Sascha.

The vehicles pulled up, and there was a pause. Rint watched through field-glasses as two bulky, copper-tanned women got off the trikes and stared up at their position. One pulled a book out of a thigh-pocket and peered into it, before shutting it again, shrugging, and yelling, in oddly-accented english - “Hey comrades, if we’ve got a beef, why don’t we play chess for it or something? There’s no need for the guns.” I don’t know if it was “comrades” or “chess” that got Rint and the others, but after a whispered argument, Rint put down his AK, stood up and walked a little way down the hill to meet one of the women coming up.

She was taller than him, shaven-headed, and some of the bulk was the white, much pocketed boiler-suit she was wearing. The first thing she said was to ask Rint if he was OK, did he need some food? Rint told me this leaning forward, frowning, trying to get it across just how important that was. Positions reversed, he’d have assumed they were an ambush. This woman’s first worry was for him. He nodded without thinking – their rations had run out the day before, they’d been living off berries – and she passed him a crumbling block of something rich-smelling before sitting crosslegged on a stump and watching him stuff his face. Rint backed far enough to throw three-quarters of the block up the slope to his friends. He and the woman looked each other over.

Rint was not a big guy when I knew him or ever, and I imagine him eighteen, scrawny and filthy from days in the wild, Russian-surplus webbing over home-woven jacket and trousers, ancient boots. He must’ve looked like the tramp you ignore in the street. The woman grimaced, then suggested they come down to the house to get clean and eat more. 

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