Ten Miles North of Asciibridge

Where the crossroads at the Star Inn bends left at Mombassastrasse, the green and gold confections of the St Riel proper turn grey with the dust of diesel fumes, and the old weed-infested railway tracks run lonely twenty miles along anonymous light manufacturing until they reach the Sacred Precinct at Asciibridge. It’s a back route, a short cut for lorry drivers avoiding the byzantine turns of the Royal Borough. No one walks along the narrow cracked pavements, and no one sees the fabric of the place.

It was with this injunction in mind that Soma Jones took me mile by mile along that abandoned trunk route, his carrier bag full of fun cameras and cheap chocolate bars. I took a low-resolution 320×240 pixel mini-DV and a litre of Vanilla Coke. (“Do you believe this stuff? It tastes like the ice cream you get in cinemas!”) We wore stout raincoats in case of bad weather but for much of our journey we cursed them for their dead weightiness.

We started out in good spirits in spite of the muggy weather. Soma grinning about himself, and at the juggernauts, and at the bitumened wooden fence sagging under the weight of lush vegetation. No trains had run along this line in fifty years. At the service area ten miles north of Asciibridge old haulage drivers would swear blind that they had seen lights moving along the railway late at night. Clutching rosaries in their aged fingers they would pray to Our Lady of the Autostrada to intercede on their behalf. They would light sweet incense in their cabs at night for protection.

But that wasn’t why we were here.

We were here because Soma Jones had found a map, a photocopy of an OS Landranger folded into the back of an old book of photographs: pictures of Macedonia at the beginning of previous century. One hungover Sunday in Hastings while we were browsing through Mr Mouji’s cluttered junk shop Soma had found a stack of old books in a carrier bag under a table. Mr Mouji told him  that they were not for sale but Soma had insisted that he should be allowed to buy them. Mr Mouji complained that they were his own books and that he had lost them under the table. “I am very pleased that you found my books for me but…”

Soma cut him off, “Finders keepers!”

The books mouldered in a pile in the corner of my living room for weeks. Sometimes we’d see Mr Mouji in pubs on the seafront. He would smile broadly, “Can I buy either of you gentlemen a drink?” he would say. I would always take him up on his offer but Soma would give him a stony “no”. Soma would normally knock over my drink or drop something into it at some point in the evening: a lighter, a salt cellar, or most often – my specs.

So it was strangely apt that clumsiness, or perhaps a spiteful spirit brought the map to our attention. One night when Ana and her husband came over for a drunken session of djinn rummy Ana accidentally trod a stray glass of wine into the carrier bag containing the books. Soma saved what he could of the contents and while he was brushing glass of the wine sodden cover of one of the book, a map dropped onto the kitchen floor.

There are easier ways to find the lost metro station at Pica. The location, as it was marked on the map, lies some three miles southwest of Asciibridge. It would have been easiest to have taken the tram as far as the Petit Fours Shopping Centre, and walked half a mile across a housing estate, where we could have taken a public footbridge over the old railway line, and fetched up a hundred yards from where we wanted to be. But Soma insisted on walking from the Royal Borough “in the footsteps of St Riel”.

“I’ve never come across a legend that states that St Riel walked this route.”

“Have you ever seen any clear evidence that he didn’t?”

“Well, no but…”

“So run along and buy another pint, there’s a good lad!”

But after ten miles of diesel fumes and Starbars even Soma Jones had lost his enthusiasm. He had used up five fun cameras exercising his aesthetic of “pictures of fuck-all” and couldn’t remember which ones he had used and which ones he hadn’t. His feet were aching and he was getting a headache and he intent on giving me one too. The Vanilla Coke had become warm and the novelty of walking on uneven pavements had palled many miles ago. And more than this, much more than this, there was nowhere to stop.

“I can’t go on, you can’t make me go on!”

“You can stay here if you like?”

“I can’t stay here, I want to go home but there’s no public transport.”

“You could hitch a lift with a lorry driver?”

“I don’t want to hitch a lift with a lorry driver.”

“Well, what do you want, then?”

“I want you to carry me home! Please carry me home!”

“Sort it out, Jones!”

“I can’t sort it out, this was a terrible mistake, what are we going to do?”

“Give me the map!”

I took the map and triangulated from some prominent landmarks: two gas towers, a scrap metal yard, and over on the other side of the old railway; Lunley Point, Graveney Point and Aveny Point were undergoing recladding. Judging by the progress we had made along the Corridor it seemed like there should be a bridge across the railway another mile or so ahead, which would bring us into the back end of an old industrial estate. There was supposed to be a go-karting track there, or at least there had been when the map was new, and a children’s playground. “There might even be a pub there!” I suggested hopefully.

We set off again with a new sense of purpose. Soma cracked open a fresh fun camera and we toasted the expedition with warm, flat Vanilla Coke. The bridge was soon in view and we discovered a sign advertising a “Cafe 500 yards ahead”? We decided against it and continued on our present course, crossing the road during a momentary gap in the traffic. The sun even tried to shine in a hazy indistinct fashion. The bridge, when we reached it, was black where the paint remained and rusty where it didn’t. The stairs were blocked by a low metal fence that we negotiated easily, as had many before us who had sprayed the metal walls with tags and drawings of oversized phalluses and inscriptions like “Gaz loves lesbians for real”. Soma took a picture of that and the bridge – he took a lot of pictures there. The top of the bridge was covered with a cage of latticed iron, the sides were too high to see along the railway line, but from the other side of the bridge we could see the triple tracks behind a wire fence.

We followed an access road around behind a dry cleaners and a bread factory, the air became yeasty and warm as we had stepped into a local microclimate. We found the playground easily. There was an old roundabout of the sort that are normally been removed in the interests of safety, and there was one of those modular plastic climbing constructions and a tube tunnel under a weed infested concrete hill. A  rumble of thunder stirred the distance and heavy spots of rain began to darken the pavement. We sat under the tunnel and smoked a roll-up until it cleared up. Soma kicked gleefully at the sides. It made a hollow boom.

“Don’t like the tunnel?”

“Nah, I like the tunnel fine. I’m just testing it.”

“For structural integrity? You want to bring the tunnel down?”

“No, you stupid prawn! I’m testing it for secret doors. Did you never read any Enid Blyton?”

“No, I didn’t. I thought Enid Blyton was for prawns.”

“See how wrong you can be!”

The rain was short-lived. Soma never found any secret doors, niches or hidden compartments. But he didn’t stay disappointed for long. It was clear and cool when we stepped out of the tube. From the top of the concrete hill we could see the mock-gothic of the Sacred Precinct at Asciibridge entangled in a mess of multistorey car parks, and there before it and to the south the ramparts of the Octagon Shopping Centre lit up brilliantly in the afternoon sun. Turning east, the industrial estate lost itself in suburban housing, flyovers and a procession of spires travelling on a north-easterly trajectory back towards the Wassgotterspeck Viaduct and the Royal Borough of St Riel. We compared the view to the map. A lonely road called Dashanka Parkway followed the same curve as the spires, but the map ran into a blackness of toner before it reached the first of them.

“We have to go look at them. You know that, don’t you?”

“It takes us exactly the opposite direction from where we are supposed to be going.”

“I know that.” Soma took pictures of the view and finished up another camera.

“It’ll be at least as far as we’ve already come and there’s no easy way back. At least if we keep going up this Corridor we can take the tram back home.”

Soma shook his head and pointed, “I want to know what those are.”

Something close to two hours later we threaded our way out through another housing estate. The broken open garages filled with rotten mattresses, smashed glass and other less describable things. Shaven-headed kids and their dogs watched our progress without interest. We came out onto Dashanka Parkway behind a late night grocers and video rental shop. This stretch of Dashanka Parkway was inhabited by tyre refitters, a turf accountants and a restaurant called Ali Akbar that served “Indian food in the name of Allah!” There were a few blocks of red brick houses, windows fogged up with traffic dust and the meagre front gardens glutted with chip packets, beer cans and tabloid centrefolds. The road developed after a few minutes into secondhand car dealerships fronted with grimy silver bunting that snapped in the wind and flicked back the orangey light from the first streetlights of the evening. We had reached civilisation of a sort, and what was more there were still buses running.

We stopped at a mini market and off licence. The shop was fronted with traffic-greyed fruit and vegetable, sacks of potatoes and bags of charcoal briquettes. Soma waited outside while I went in to buy crisps and cans of drink. It was one of those long shops where the aisles are barely wide enough for one person. At the end there were large glass-fronted refrigerators full of beer and fizzy drinks. In front of them there was a group of six young Asian and Greek men. I pushed past them to get to the fridge containing cans of Vanilla Coke and Idris Ginger Beer. I looked in my wallet to check that I had enough money for the drinks. There were the shapes of a few pound coins in there. A hand reached into my wallet and took one. I looked up. A dark-haired Greek man grinned at me. I snatched the coin back from him and he grabbed my hand.

The two of us stood there like that for over a minute. He wouldn’t loosen his grasp. I looked around at the other men in the back of the shop hoping to find one who wasn’t such a prat and who might call him off. But they all looked away or at the floor – thinking back on it there was something unusual about their blank expressions. I called up the shop to the old Sikh who was rearranging the cigarette packets behind the counter. The Greek man relented and let go of my hand with a triumphant expression.

He smiled, “I can take anything I want from you!”

I considered pushing him into the freezer that he stood in front of. But decided to walk back out of the shop instead. Soma was still out there taking pictures of the road.

“Didn’t you get any drinks?”

“I’ll explain later, let’s try another shop.”

The six men walked out. The Greek man stopped to stare at me and then continued up the road.

“Weird fucker!” Soma Jones laughed.

We went back into the shop and got some cans of Vanilla Coke and a pack of blue Superkings.

 

We waited about for five minutes before the bus arrived. Paid our fares and climbed up to the empty upper deck. Up there at the front we had a panoramic view of the road. The sky was starting to darken with clouds and the air became heavy and stormy once more. As the bus progressed further up the road human habitation thinned out. Out to the left there was a Carpet World and an anonymous trading estate. A river ran under the road and small factories and industrial plants ran along the valley pumping effluent into the river. Out ahead we could see in the grey-yellow glow of the horizon the clustered spires of our goal describing the parabola of Dashanka Parkway.

The bus stopped at an ice rink that crouched beside the road like an enormous white wood louse illuminated green by spotlights. A bunch of kids and their parents got on. Soma tapped my shoulder, “Let’s get off here and walk the rest!” We elbowed past the children and their parents with their oversized sports bags who were starting to fill up the bottom deck.

Outside the air was freshening with stormy winds, the air was electric and invigorating. We lit up cigarettes with difficulty and set off up the road. Mere minutes later we saw the first one. They looked less ecclesiastic close up, there was a fluted, elaborate alien-ness to them, and they were built to an enormous scale. One after another in an interminable sequence, each of them slightly different – windowless, doorless, insect-like, often connected by what appeared to be overhead walkways. We crossed the road, which was mostly empty of traffic along this stretch, to see them closer up. We came up with a number of theories:

“They’re some sort of caravanserai, or mega-juggernaut?”

“A temple of some sort, a place of worship left behind by a civilisation that destroyed itself through its own folly?”

“The reproductive organ and/or tongue of some primeval demiurge, torn out in a ritual sacrifice, or perhaps a war in heaven?”

We laughed. As the air became brisk around us our senses became intensely aware in the accumulating dark. It was impossible to smoke in the high winds, you couldn’t get a taste of tobacco into your mouth. Soma Jones looked at me with an implacable authority and said:

“We have found the vehicle of the Gipt.”

“The fucking what?”

“The fucking Gipt. It came here millennia ago it and lives amongst us. Imagine this: there are people who look like us, talk like us, eat like us, fuck like us, but if you could see them as they really are you would see a knotted mass of tendrils in the shape of a human being. Those tendrils go down into the ground connecting every one of them to every other one. Like a group nervous system. Some savants argue that somewhere deep in the earth there is a Master Brain that commands them all, but others see their intelligence as a distributed system present and complete in every part. But the Gipt, like any other intelligence, is at war with the world but also at war with itself. It is one but it is also divided. It cannot be said that it is malign or benign, or that it is neither of these. It is just the Gipt.”

“But how can they move. I mean, if they’re all connected through the ground via tendrils?”

Soma Jones made a spastic face at me, “There aren’t really any tendrils. That’s just an image, a picture of what the thing is like. What it is really like is incomprehensible, constantly shifting, constantly avoiding any interpretation we might put on it. But I’ll tell you this: it is other than us. You can see them every day of the week in the street, or on trains, or driving cars. One might work in your office; your office might be entirely filled with them. But, of course, it is wrong to speak of it as “them” because there is only the one but it is in constant conflict within itself and against the world.”

“And this was the way they came to this world?”

Soma Jones gazed up at the bizarre structures that continued forever on up the road. He nodded.

We walked on in silence. The segments of the vehicle turned black against a violent sky that split open with thunder and lightning. We walked on dumb-struck into the rain as it turned inevitably into hail. There was no shelter from the downpour. There was nothing but the road and the rain and the segments of that alien thing. I don’t remember much of the rest of that journey.

Dashanka Parkway curves gradually back towards the Royal Borough. We returned to familiar territory late in the night soaked to the skin. Soma Jones went back to his rooms in a townhouse within sight of the Wassgotterspeck viaduct and I went back to the house I was sharing on Mombassastrasse. We parted without a word. We didn’t see each other for a number of weeks and neither of us mentioned that place ever again.

 

Six months later I moved to an apartment above a bookmakers on Dashanka Parkway. It was the first flat I lived in on my own. I still recall my first few months of independence there with a sentimental fondness. From the bathroom window at the back you could see Carpet World and the river, which I later discovered was called the Vulga. And across the field of vision you could see the electricity pylons that mark the river’s passage across the landscape.

I lived there for two years, or at least I lived there in the weekends and evenings when I wasn’t working all the overtime I could get. I worked at Lynneys in Asciibridge, a firm that fabricated rebuilds. I worked in the basement in the ordering department. I had my own desk and if my life wasn’t perfect at least I had my privacy. I jogged up to the Giptic vehicle once or twice on Sundays that summer. It looked completely different on a sunny day. Sometimes you’d see other people there walking their dogs or riding bicycles or, like me, taking a morning jog.

At the end of those two years I got out of Lynneys. I secured a minor post at the civil service in the Royal Borough itself and found some nice rooms not far from Soma Jones’s old townhouse near the Wassgotterspeck viaduct. Soma himself had vanished. No one knew where he had gone. Whether he had gone back to London or whether he had moved further into those uncharted realms that he had been starting to carve out for himself when I had known him.

The actual process of moving took me the better part of a week. The first weekend a removal firm moved most of my belongings to the new flat, but there was still a lot of stuff that I hadn’t packed around the old place. It had been difficult to find the time to do all of it while starting the new job, and of course enduring and the inevitable leaving celebrations from the old job. I’ll admit that it was mostly my own fault but the girls, two sisters who were moving into my old flat, didn’t seemed particularly concerned. Their own moving schedule seemed to be at least as haphazard as my own.

On the Friday evening after I had started moving I swore off drinking for a week and went to the old flat to try to gather the last of my belongings. Things were starting to go well for me. It was a bright evening in late summer. So it was with a pleasant mixture of nostalgia and optimism for the future I walked up the alley that runs behind the row of shops. A short flight of metal stairs leads up to the door. To one side there is a flat roof  where I had tried to grow a geraniums. The door was open and I could hear tinny pop music playing on a radio inside.

I pushed the door open. One of the sisters, Irene, was cooking spaghetti Bolognese on the stove and the other, Alia, was reading a magazine at the kitchen table. Both of them were dark haired with thick eyebrows that almost met in the middle. We said hello, exchanged pleasantries and Irene found me some mail that had arrived during the week. Alia made me a strong Turkish coffee that I took upstairs with me to collect together a few odds and ends from the box room: a desk lamp, an old photo album and a four-gang extension plug.

Coming back into the kitchen there was a man standing in the doorway. I recognised him immediately: it was the Greek who had hassled me in the mini market on Dashanka Parkway. I could see that he recognised me too, and there was still that look of arrogant malice in his eyes. The girls were eating at the kitchen table, paying him no attention. He came across the room at me in four big steps, his eyes fixed on mine.

“Shit,” he hissed over and over again. “Fucking shit!” he hissed. He grabbed hold of the extension lead I was carrying. “Fucking shithead!” and once again we were locked there in a tug of war. We pulled back and forth across the kitchen. The desk lamp and photo album fell out of my arms and onto the floor. I squeaked something like, “let go of it, you idiot!” All the time his eyes were fixed on mine. Whenever he made another tug he bit his tongue at me. I looked around at the sisters for help. Both of them were sitting there placidly looking at us. The man stopped as if he had noticed them for the first time.

“Let go of it, Stratos!” Alia said, “let go of it and leave him alone!”

He whined, his eyes downcast for a moment, “I can take anything I want from him!” he hissed but without the same conviction. But again the light awoke in his eyes and again he starting tugging at the lead.

“Let go of it!” Alia repeated. Again he stopped. She stood up, walked over to where we were standing, we both let go of the extension lead in unison and it fell to the floor. She pointed towards the door and he backed off towards it making a noise something between whining and humming.

He spat at me, glared, “I can take anything I want from you!” Then he looked down at our hands, Alia’s and mine. I hadn’t noticed when she had taken my hand, it was hot and sticky against my palm. Something like a snarl moved across his face.

Alia pointed at the door, “Go!” and he backed towards the stairs half-falling, half-stumbling down them.

 

Once I had moved the last of my things out of the flat I continued to visit the sisters. I never asked them about Stratos, the Greek man, and they never volunteered any information. I’d  go over there on a Friday night after work and Alia and me would go out to restaurants and piano bars on the Mombassastrasse. At first Irene would come along too but she’d normally go home early, and then she stopped coming out at all. I was always expecting to run into the Stratos or Soma Jones or even Mr Mouji in the Trattoria St Paul or at night on the Kirchner Bridge, but it never happened.

Alia started to stay at my rooms near Wassgotterspeck over the weekends. On a Saturday we might spend a lazy morning at the Oslo ice cream parlour reading the broadsheets and making small talk with Papa Gelato. Often on a Saturday evening there would be a dinner party with colleagues from the civil service or we might sometimes go and watch foreign movies at the Kinomat in Asciibridge. Sundays we would get up late, we might drive out to one of the villages beyond Petit Fours: Eux, Chilsey Kegmore, Daisywell or Malfen. Once we drove all the way up the Peninsula to the oil soaked mudflats at Chantryness. There where the Vulga meets the open sea, the afternoon sun catches in the stained glass of the ruined basilica and radiates in rainbow colours from the corrupted seafront. Out on the chocolate brown ocean the hulks of crippled tankers stand out dark against the sun like the broken teeth of Leviathan.

It was there that I told her that I loved her and she looked at me and said nothing. There was something in that straight look she gave me, that made me resolve never to look in there again.

Thinking back now I am starting to realise how little I knew about her, how little I ever discovered. After that momentary glance I think I avoided looking any closer for fear of what I might find. We were negotiating a narrow path around the rim of something unfathomable. The foundations of that something, or those intimations of its depths, brought me crippling migraines, nosebleeds and sudden panic attacks.

But the mundane veneer of my life at that time was more than sufficient consolation. My career was taking off, I was receiving regular promotions and my superiors were pleased with the work I was doing. I even liked my boss, Lance Packard, which was something that had never happened before. I was assigned to the Obfuscation Department with particular responsibility for ticket availability and immigration, especially from the London and South East area. In the first year of my assignment four immigrants acquired tickets to the Royal Borough. In succeeding years we brought that down to one or less per year. I took a pride in my work and from Monday to Thursday I rarely left the office before nine in the evening. But the weekends were for Alia.

 

On  Alia’s birthday, five years after we first met, I got a phone call from Soma Jones.

“Hi, it’s Soma. Have you still got the book? Tell me you have!”

“The book? Which book? Where are you? Where have you been? You vanished.”

“The book from Mr Mouji’s. Have you still got it?”

“I thought you had the map.”

“Fuck the map. Different question. I’m not interested in the map. I need the book. Go look for it!”

“Look, Soma, we’re just about to got out. I’ll have a look for the book during the week but you can’t just…”

“I’ll call you back in ten minutes.”

He rang off and I was left holding there the receiver feeling stupid, feeling like I had a headache coming on. It was actually true that we were getting ready to meet friends at the dog track so in my mind there was no real question of looking for the book on such short notice. I told Alia about the phone call. She knew about Soma Jones, or at least knew as much as I’d told her about him.

“Well, where is he?” she asked, “perhaps if you can find the book we could drop it off on the way to the dog track.”

“I’ve no idea where he is. He didn’t say, and besides, don’t you think he’s taking the piss a bit? Anyway, he said he’s phoning back.”

“Well maybe he is taking the piss, but I’d quite like to meet him. Perhaps we could invite him along to the dogs?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

The phone rang. It was him.

“Have you found it?” he said.

“Look this really isn’t convenient. Like I said we’re about to go out.”

“Be a mate!”

“What?”

“Be a mate and go take a quick look. Won’t take a minute. I’ll hold.”

I was starting to feel that there was only one way out of this situation: the book. I had some idea where it might be, I vaguely remembered seeing it while rooting through things in the spare room. “Okay, I’ll have a look,” I said, “where are you anyway?”

“The service area outside Asciibridge.”

I found it in a pile of old magazines. Its cover was dyed purple with spilled wine. I thumbed through the pages. There was a single page introduction in Greek and then the rest of the book was pictures: pictures of gypsies, dancing bears and rural villages in Macedonia at the hinge of the previous century. An old broken down car was being pulled across a stone bridge by a carthorse. A group of moustachioed men were dancing in the village square.

I told him that we’d get down to the service area in the next hour and rang off. Alia was slow to get ready. She was slow by inclination.

“Look,” I said, “I’ll go down on my own. I can be back in half an hour.”

“No, I want to come. I’ll only be a minute. I’ve just got to make a phone call.”

“Can’t you make it in the car?”

 

The sky was pink over the faux-Gothic arches of the Sacred Precinct. It turned the concrete faces of the Octagon Centre peach and rose where they caught the sun and a deep turquoise where they sloped away. Traffic was light at that time in the afternoon, there were few lorries on the ring road. The ring road led out onto an arterial route that ran straight and wide eight miles between low glass and steel fronted business parks. And there, under a convoluted junction that carried traffic to the four corners of the earth, crouched the service area.

We found the cafeteria at the still centre of a hundred parked juggernauts and framed by a dozen or so portakabins that housed the offices of the more prominent haulage firms. As we came through the doors all eyes turned on me. There they were: the drivers. Their rosary beads clicked with Ave Marias to Our Lady of the Autostrada. The rattle of cutlery on plates of greasy egg, sausage, fried slice and two bacon, the surly slurp of frothy coffee in chipped mugs. Fuck this, I thought, my skin crawling in the greasy air. Every instinct told me to back off out of that door. But Alia stood behind me in the doorway ushering me forwards. And there, hunched at a table in the middle of the café, sat Soma Jones.

He was in something of a state. He had grown a square beard from his inadequate chin and he wore a blue-grey raincoat over what appeared to be either jogging bottoms or pyjamas. On the floor he kicked his moccasins around while his hands rolled a thin cigarette with exaggerated care. He looked up at us for the first time and stood up.

“Did you bring the merchandise?” he looked from side to side with a mock-furtiveness.

“I managed to find the book, if that’s what you mean.”

“Good, good,” he pointed at Alia with the unlit roll-up, “who’s she?”

“Alia, it’s her birthday.”

“Oh,” he lit the roll-up, “do you think she’s one of them?”

“One of them?”

“You do remember, don’t you?”

I sat down on the chair opposite. Alia stood beside the table. I couldn’t be bothered with this right now. I was starting to get little visual tics and the fatty air was making me feel sick. I pushed the carrier containing the book across the table. Soma fished inside the bag and pulled the book out.

There was a hiss of pneumatic brakes outside.

I didn’t see how he had entered or how he had managed to clear the distance from the door without me seeing him, but the next thing I knew Soma Jones was wrestling with Mr Mouji. They had seized hold of either end of the book and the two of them were pulling and twisting, hissing and grinning with an unwholesome lethargy that barely held them together in the ponderous gravity of their grotesque embrace. An oppressive weight pressed down on my forehead and the sounds in my ears were being filtered through a foggy tinnitus. Greasy sweat rose on my brow. Through the hyper-real smog I could make out row upon row of haulage drivers converging on our table. My head tolled with doleful nausea.

Alia took centre stage in the conflict. By now the haulage drivers were pulling the two combatants away from each other. Soma grinned with a lot of teeth; he had won the book from Mr Mouji. Alia stepped forward, her head surrounded by a corona of yellow light. She took the book from him easily. His face turned to dismay and Mr Mouji’s split into ecstatic joy as his property was restored to him. The mob released him and raised the kicking and screaming Soma Jones onto their massed shoulders. At Alia’s signal they followed her to the door.

My vision strobed in and out of the negative. My cheek was sticking to the formica table top which turned alternately hot and then cold. A peppermill rose tower-like above me. Before she left Alia looked back at me one last time, her halo and her eyes pulsing like a bundle of fibre optic cables. I was vaguely aware that Soma Jones was ululating and thrashing on top of the mob and periodically Mr Mouji would dance into view waving his torn and tattered prize in the air. Alia blinked at me like a cat and my consciousness went out.

 

I never saw her or Soma Jones again.