Edgar was very much from the old days and, over the years, many of his habits had been absorbed by the young George. As a student of history he loved the old days and with Edgar it seemed as if he could even feel the theme. Both were happy when the old man’s hy-dev pinged him the message to say that their fish, chips with bread and butter supper had been delivered to his food hatch. Where it came from George had never asked. The pair sat in old fashioned leather armchairs with their plates in their laps. George had only ever eaten meals at a proper dining table anywhere he had been for his entire life, apart from at Edgar’s where he ate from his knees. And in his own home, when he was alone, of course. The pair sprayed salt and vinegar over their chips and made sandwiches out of them, munching away and sipping whiskey.
‘Chip Butty’s,’ announced Edgar between mouthfuls, ‘ain’t never been anything better. How’s your cod?’
’Perfect,’ George replied as he looked around and studied Edgar’s main room. It was a wide, open space with large windows on two walls that framed the view of the Central Complex, shining brightly and humming with activity.
‘That is the original brickwork,’ Edgar gestured towards the large chimney breast and fireplace. ‘Somebody tried to persuade me to knock it down once, but that’s character that is. It must be over two hundred and fifty years old. Do you know that this whole building was built in 1802 of the Old Calendar by prisoners of war? When I first moved in here one of the old boys on the ground floor told me the story.’
Edgar had, at some point, chosen to have the high ceilings painted in a deep, dark maroon colour. The old wooden floorboards remained exposed and tattered rugs were scattered around. George had been there many times, of course. He had even lived there once for a few years whilst he was in the second part of his training and the Complex Academy was just around the corner.
‘How old was I when I stayed here?’ George asked.
‘I dunno, fourteen, fifteen; something like that.’ Said Edgar.
‘Were those pictures here then,’ George asked, pointing his butty at the African style art that peppered at least two of the walls.
‘I’ve had them for years,’ replied the old man. And they are yours one day; in fact you get the whole place when I’m gone. I ain’t got nobody else I can call family anymore.’
This remark caused the anxiety to build up in George again. Edgar had been around for all of his life and been part of it. A big part of it and it simply had never occurred to him that one day he wouldn’t be there anymore. Edgar was seventy-eight years old and most people lived well past a hundred years in modern times. George relaxed a little when he realised he would be at least around the withdrawing age himself by the time Edgar shuffled on.
‘Yeah well I don’t want to think about that,’ he said between mouthfuls, ‘if it’s alright with you.’ I’d prefer you to live forever, or at least outlive me.’
‘Everybody’s gotta die son. That’s easy. Any idiot can do that. Living is the trick. That’s the hard part so make sure you do it properly and for as long as you can. And make a contribution too, something that will last forever.’
’I do my best,’ grinned George as he set his plate down on the floor, leaned back into the big old armchair and sipped his whiskey.
Edgar tapped on his hy-dev and the giant screen on the wall sprang alive. ‘The footie is just starting,’ he said, ‘are you staying to watch it?’
‘Of course,’ said George. ‘Chelsea are at home, I can see the stadium lights are on.’ George gestured his glass to one of the big windows. ‘We should have gone. You used to take me all the time,’ he reminded him.
‘Bollocks to that,’ replied Edgar, ‘it’s cold out there and they haven’t got no armchairs in that stadium, nor Jamesons for that matter.’
Edgar stood up with his plate and, as George handed him his, he placed them back into the hatch and slammed the door shut. Where they went, George had never asked.
‘Come on you blues,’ shouted Edgar as the game started.
George had been armed with so many questions that day, but now was clearly not the time to start asking them.
’You cheating bastard,’ Edgar shouted at the referee.
George had long since given up reminding the old man that the referee couldn’t hear him, from where he was sitting.
‘What do you remember about Christmas?’ he ventured.
Edgar turned to look directly at him, paused for a moment and then said, ‘some old religious shit from years ago.’ He turned back to the screen, ‘not backwards, pass it forwards you useless wanker,’ he bellowed.
’And what about religion, what do you remember about that?’ George pressed on.
‘Nothing. Except when I was married once and started believing in the Hell part of it. That was back when your grandfather was born.’
‘How old were you then?’
‘Twenty-one, what is this twenty bleeding questions? Try passing it to a bloke with the same colour shirt on you muppet,’ he yelled.
George realised this was not a good time to be engaging Edgar in conversation about anything other than football. And so he gave in to type. ‘That’s more like it,’ he clapped, ‘a corner, now don’t waste it’ he called out, as Edgar stood up to watch. The ball flew over the heads of all the players and out for a throw in, to the wrong team, on the other side of the pitch. Edgar turned to George, arms stretched out wide and with a look of disbelief on his face. He didn’t even have to say ‘useless wanker,’ as he sat back down. George already knew. Looking around the apartment he started noticing things, for the first time, which had always been there. He had so many questions but they would have to wait. He settled back into his chair, sipped his whiskey, put his feet up and watched the game.
‘Come on you Blues,’ Edgar cheered as the final whistle sounded and the home crowd roared. ‘I do love a 3-0 win over the northern monkeys.’
‘Northern what? Asked George.
‘Never mind son, we won. Pass me that bottle.’
George topped his own glass and then did as he was asked. ‘Granddad, I am going down to the Mother City this weekend, is there anything you need before I go? But, I am back on Sunday so if it can wait….’
‘I’m good son, thanks for asking.’
George took a deep breath. ‘I am thinking of asking Mira if she wants to sign a marriage contract whilst I am there.’
Edgar choked on his whiskey and wiped his chin with a fraying sleeve. ‘You fucking what?’
’She is a good girl, has a good heart. If I can only help her with her drinking I think it will be great, she is fantastic when she is sober. I have never met anyone like her.’
‘And when she is drunk?’ Edgar probed.
‘Well,’ George paused and then said, ‘I’ve never met anyone like her either.’
‘Doesn’t that answer your question George?’ assumed Edgar.
‘I didn’t ask one,’ he responded.
‘I think you did,’ Edgar insisted.
George ignored the remark. ‘But if I can only help her with the drinking problem, if I can make it go away.’
‘You a head doctor now son are you, as well as a book geek? You sound like an idiot. Alcoholism is an illness, not a party weekend. You either have it or you haven’t. You are one or you aren’t. There is no in between.’
Edgar was not impressed by what he had heard of Mira, although he had never met her.
‘The thing is,’ George continued, ‘I met a girl today and I just can’t get her out of my mind. I’m thinking I might find out how things are in Cape Town, once and for all, and then decide what to do. Suggest a marriage licence or end it for good. Whatever ‘it’ is. But I know that would break her heart, it’s the thing she fears most.’
’Well, there is only one way to find that out son,’ said Edgar, ‘so perhaps it’s a good idea to bring matters to a head, so to speak. It’s only a year’s contract anyway. Just remember one thing. Be careful what you say and be careful what you do. A woman may, one day, forget what you have said to her but she will never forget how you made her feel. And another thing, you don’t really want to be entering a contract like that with a girl who spends most of her time looking for a better party, when she should be looking for a better self, do you?’
‘And when did you become an expert on women?’ asked George.
‘An expert on women? That’s called an oxymoron my boy but, I have learned from my own mistakes.’
‘Go on then,’ George challenged his grandfather, ‘tell me about your girlfriends when you were younger.’ Edgar thought for a moment, took a long draw from his glass, lit a smoke and sat back into his big leather armchair. After a few more moments he said.
‘Like most boys-turned-teenager, my sole ambition was to get myself a girlfriend and by the time I was seventeen I had met the perfect one. She was fragrant, funny and purely virginal. I stole all of that after promising to show her the beauty of making love. But I was just a kid and rushed it and, in the end, showed her nothing at all. She was sweet to taste, but shy and had yet to discover her desire for life, content instead to tow along. I decided I needed a girl with a little more sparkle, some confidence and awareness.
By the time I was nineteen I had met the perfect one. She was tall and rangy and gangly and effortlessly sexy. She could entertain and was easily entertained and she was confident enough to teach me love. That’s an old word we used to use. But it became over-used and, in the end, meaningless and so it dropped out of the language.’
‘What does it mean?’ George asked.
‘It explains a state of mind, that’s all’ Edgar replied. ‘It used to be one of the biggest of all the words and described a feeling you had towards somebody you would do anything for. Some people even died for love. Anyway, we were the perfect couple, on the skin, but in the veins beneath she was too emotional. Passionate, fiery, irrational as hell, she could start a row in an empty room.
She got herself pregnant; it was possible in those days and so I had to marry her. After that almost everything was a drama and everything else an emergency, she threatened to leave each week and once even left a suicide note before going out for the day. I threw up with the worry. She had to be placed at the centre of everything and her form of self-defence was to attack first. She spoke off the top of her head and out of her arse and I was never sure which. I finally grew weary of all this and felt I needed somebody easier to live with.
By the time I reached twenty-two I had met the perfect one. Not a head turner to begin with, but once she had discovered her sexuality she wore it with ease. She was affectionate, popular, reliable, clever and clean, the five great qualities. I was so fond of her I even bought her underwear that she would actually want to put on. She was one of the Goodhearts, and I only wish she hadn’t caught me hunched over chopped out lines of cocaine in Bickford’s Kitchen on that Sunday afternoon. The depth in her was the shallow in me and it soon became far too obvious she could live without me.
But, when I was twenty-four I met the perfect one. Radical and driven to change the world. Believed in belief and that attracted me greatly. She spread, she scattered, she sprinkled and yet ultimately she destroyed everything close to her. She even believed the way to demonstrate against the old capitalism was to smash up a burger bar, depriving dozens of part time students their minimum wage in the process.
She was forty-five kilograms of plastic explosive that was ready to go off at any moment and, when it did, she blew emotion in every direction, making the whole city shiver. Her heart had been squeezed and was then twisted into a fist. She ended up disliking me for reasons I never bothered to think about. Insensate, thoughtless and with a heart well worth breaking. But not before I had shagged all the best sex out of her.’
George frowned, took a deep draw on his whiskey and lit a smoke. He was already wishing he hadn’t asked the question. But Edgar pressed on.
‘So by the time I was twenty-five I had met the perfect one. She was calm, cool, reserved and at ease with herself. She didn’t expect too much out of life, which is how even I didn’t disappoint her. A teacher with few friends and no sport, her views on Zen and a smooth pace both fascinated and relaxed me. But she couldn’t explain why those dumbMasters would throw young kids into the mud if they couldn’t answer their dumbZen questions, such as ‘why do you sit there and not here?’ and ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Once I had heard enough of this hand clapping claptrap I became restless and eventually bored. My life was passing along unnoticed by anybody, including myself. I needed something else. I needed more.
By the time I was about twenty-eight I had met the perfect one as the most dramatic girl in the world arrived in mine. She was an actress and dug everybody on that scene. Life became one big adventure as she paraded me around. What a looker, what a lover, but what a moon mushroom. She had none of her own direction and no time for mine. I couldn’t keep step as she flip-flopped from one place to another without settling for a moment to look around her. At every stop she would be trying to find a better one and if she did she was off. Her insincerity required a heart of stone not to laugh at and, in the end, those rant and ramblings left me numb and gave me pins and needles. Eventually one of those pins went straight into my pin-cushion-head and pricked me aware. She was talented and strong but tainted and so, so wrong. The hour had come for me to run before she inculcated me for the worse. She was changing me and anyway, I needed to settle down.’
‘She sounds like Mira,’ George interrupted.
‘Does she? Well I can see the attraction then,’ Edgar replied, ‘but that will wear off sooner or later, it always does.’
Edgar wasn’t quite finished.
‘So anyway, by the time I was thirty-one I had met the perfect one. I was uncovered and opened up by a beautiful, creative, stable and proper woman with a career, direction and time for even more. She fell in love with me, and madly too, and then watered my dry life. She bought me time and gave me purpose. She was smart and I thought I was when I nearly married her. But she was bright enough to shine right through me and see everything inside. Before the year was out so was I. She destroyed me. And my record collection, but kept everything else. Apparently she was insentient.
After that I thought about how times had been ten years earlier, when I was always looking for something. I felt older back then but was much wiser by now. It’s true that if we learn from our past without being bitter we can call it experience, and not to take advantage of all of this is the Big Sin. So I trousered all of that experience and I became far more comfortable with myself. My karma was good and I spent the next twenty years in the company of twenty-five-year-old shaved blondes with big tits. I could get a new one every year.’
George stared at the old man for sometime before he drained his glass and said, ‘thanks for the advice; I am sure there is some in there somewhere. I had better be going.’
‘How did your first day go?’ Edgar asked, almost as an after thought.
‘I started correcting one of the classics, A Christmas Carol by,’
‘Yes, I know who by,’ interrupted Edgar. ‘So that’s why you were asking about Christmas earlier. Well, I hope you do a good job on it and come by again next week, when you get back. You can tell me about Cape Town and I will tell you what I remember about Christmas, but only after you have finished the update of that book.’
‘Cheers, thanks granddad, see you next week. Oh, and what were those five great qualities again?’
’Affectionate, popular, reliable, clever and clean.’
’Is three out of five close enough?’
‘Not really son,’ said the old man as he tapped his hy-dev, activating the elevator that would take George back down to the main hallway. He watched as George left the building, buttoned his coat against the cold winter wind and began the short walk to the underground network. Edgar turned off his wall screen, filled his glass and stood at one of the large windows overlooking the Central Complex. From where he was in Butler’s Wharf he could see the spectacular Tower Bridge, with the famous old castle on the Tower Hill beyond. Both were illuminated against the black November sky and beyond them the great dome of the Wren Monument dominated the skyline. Edgar remembered Christmas clearly. He remembered St Paul’s Cathedral too, before the Corporation had renamed it along with all the other great cathedrals, mosques and churches of the old city.
Edgar lit an open fire and watched as the growing wind drove the rain against his window. He sipped his whiskey and thought about the old days. The old days of his childhood when there was still such a thing as Christmas, churches and Midnight Mass. It was a long, long time ago and he wasn’t really sure of how much he actually remembered or if he had since been told what he remembered. Were they even his own memories? It was another lifetime and it all seemed so blurred to him now. Edgar pondered the past as he watched the flames dancing in the grate.
He remembered Christmas fondly as a time when families would come together. The poorer families like his would have to huddle together around a single small fireplace in cramped parlour as they exchanged presents, sang carols and celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ. George, Edgar realised, knew nothing about Jesus Christ as any record of that particular, primitive myth had long since been deleted from the Corporation archives. Edgar thought about Christianity and its vast enemy Islam. He remembered the great final war that began in 2001, of the Old Calendar, when Islam attacked the very centre of the Christian Empire in New York. He remembered how that had changed everything. And then he fell asleep.
The following morning George, Hugo and Will all met at the coffee dispenser on the concourse of Waterloo Station. As soon as they had settled into their seats George asked Will, ‘what does your archive say about love?’
Will tapped his screen, ‘nothing, again,’ he replied.
‘I know something about love,’ offered Hugo cheerfully. ‘Shakespeare invented that too.’
George tapped at his own archive and read; ‘Love – a state of emotion and/or feeling that a man would have towards a woman or his family, children etc. Invented by William Shakespeare and was dropped from the language of Albion after it became overused and meaningless. It has been replaced by ‘respect, admiration, honesty commitment and contract.’
‘Almost just as Edgar had explained,’ thought George. Within minutes Will had left in the platform pod and Hugo and George were being eased into the Guildford terminal in their own.
‘Good luck with that little wizard today,’ George teased him as they went their separate ways. When he reached his own floor he was disappointed to find no sign of Tibha anywhere at all. Still, he had other things on his mind as he sat down, pulled A Winter’s Tale up onto his screen and began to read. No sooner had he started than a message box appeared on his screen.
Mira; ‘Sorry to miss your call yesterday babes. I went on a long bike ride in the afternoon and was pooped when I got home. Fell straight to sleep.’
‘Bike ride, or beach?’ George wondered. He changed his settings to ‘working hours’ and then closed the message screen. Turning back to his manuscript he read, ‘Yes!’ said the child, brimful of glee. Home for good and all. Home for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven.’ George deleted the word ‘heaven’ and replaced it with paradise. He then deleted that, added the words ‘a delight’ and continued reading. An hour or two must have passed before he noticed Tibha sitting next to him, on his right hand side.
‘Good morning,’ she offered.
‘Is it still morning then?’ George laughed.
‘I logged in for a twelve until seventeen work period today,’ she admitted. ‘I had things to do this morning.’ George didn’t ask what they were and turned back to continue his corrective work.
He wondered how many people were actually reading their copy of A Winter’s Tale as he worked on it. Did anybody notice names changing, countries disappearing, corrections taking place to millions of book apps every single day? George gazed through his window at the world beyond. Even if anybody did notice then the next generation wouldn’t, that’s for sure. That was the whole point of his work. How many people, he wondered, were out there and currently reading something that he, himself, was correcting? By the time a reader reached the ending of a book, he may have changed it. The beginning was certainly already different and an updated version had been spidered out to every hy-dev bookshelf within seconds of his corrections. He also wondered how many people were reading Tibha’s modernising of Wordsworth that would already be in their book archives. The original having been lost forever.
’Tibha,’ George turned in his seat. ‘What were you taught about love at your academy?’
Ahh, love,’ she replied. ‘It was a central theme for the poets and romantics. They wrote about it as if it was the most important thing a person can experience. An achievement almost, that everybody should aim for if they were to feel complete. To love and to be loved. It was a feeling, an emotion that always led to something good. Some say it still is although it wasn’t true that it always led to something good. Often it led to disaster.’
George looked at her closely, he was listening carefully. ‘Yes, but what did it mean, what actually was it?’
‘Love was doing something good for a person that they would never, perhaps, know you had done for them. Acts of kindness, if you like, when nobody was watching. It’s one thing to do good things for everybody to see George, it’s quite another to do them when you know nobody will find out you have done them. To know there is no reward, but to do a good thing anyway, that’s love George.’
‘Isn’t that just kindness? Isn’t that simply the right moral thing to do?’ He asked.
’It isn’t something that is easy to understand or explain,’ she continued. ‘Love was once the only human emotion that nobody could really understand or explain. It was an unstoppable feeling. An internal volcano. It was never angry, or provoked. Short tempered people found peace in love. Love never kept score. It never counted up who had done more for who and so it was never in debt or in credit. Instead it simply forgave bad behaviour whether it was intentional or otherwise. Love was never jealous. It embraced another person’s achievement and encouraged it, with pride. Love was felt quietly and behind the scenes and never openly or needing to be recognised. It didn’t need attention.
Love never enjoyed the misfortune of others, even in secret. Instead it applauded and admired their success. Love trusted and was always hopeful, it was patient and restrained. It cared deeply about others and, although it was always the same thing, it could come in completely different forms. The love they had for their lovers, for example, was slightly different from the love they had for their families or friends. A person could love books, or music, or their dog. They were all variations of a theme.’
‘What was the difference?’ he asked her.
Tibha thought about this for a while and then replied, ‘physical love probably. That was the only difference. The love for a child would never cease to exist, no matter the circumstances, although the love for that child’s mother, or father, may never have existed in the first place.’
’So you mean sex, procreation?’ He thought he understood.
Tibha considered this for a moment. ‘Well for two grown adult humans who weren’t related then yes, I suppose that could be an expression of love, but not necessarily. Plenty of people had sex without love and many more felt love without having sex. Some said that loveless sex was the best kind and that so was sexless love. But there was much more to it than that. Love was never proud of itself. It didn’t think more highly of itself or feel superior. It never boasted about itself. It worked quietly and behind the scenes and stood aside when it needed to. It was never rude or disrespectful but instead it protected; even those who did not feel they needed protecting. You can protect a person with love George, without them even knowing or understanding. It was brave, fearless even, when it gave so much for such a great personal cost. Often that would never be recognised and that was the bravest thing about love. It never gave up hope. It was a connection, characterised by a flow of positive emotions and warm feelings. Some say it still exists.’
George was as fascinated as he was confused. And her passion was turning him on. He wondered if she believed love still existed, but was afraid to ask. Tibha continued, without interruption.
‘It was only when you saw people doing stupid and ridiculous things that you realised you were in love. Either that or when they have gone, forever and it was too late to do anything about it. That was a tragedy. Love was a beautiful feeling, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes that mostly gathered around the heart. It was a butterfly, dancing around you but, and most importantly of all George, when a beautiful butterfly lands on your hand the temptation is to grab it and hold onto it tightly but that, of course, only crushes it. You have to let butterflies fly George, letting it go is love.
Love was a gift, of the rarest kind. It could emerge over a period of time or it could appear in an instant. But nobody could ever really love another person unless they loved themselves first. Otherwise they just adored or desired that person as a result of their own lack of fullness and insecurity. That love was always in need of attention and reassurance and it rarely lasted for long. Not for one of the people anyway. And that’s when all the problems started George. When one person fell out of love the other could be badly hurt, emotionally. And this often led to bad things. You had to be strong enough for love George and many people simply weren’t strong enough.’
George was exhausted. ‘But surely anybody who was in love would often feel sad or insecure for most of the time, anyway? What would be the point in believing in something you cannot really feel, see and understand.’
‘We are in trouble as a species, George,’ Tibha concluded, ‘if people continue refusing to believe in things they cannot themselves actually do, feel, see or understand.’
Tibha smiled and turned back to her manuscript. George’s head was hurting.
‘What are you working on today?’ he asked her, as he searched his notebook application.
‘Beachy Head and other Poems by Charlotte Smith,’ she replied.
‘Never heard of her.’ George responded, without looking up.
‘No, that’s because of all the Romantic Poets the men were considered superior. The Big Six they called them. William Blake, Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Shelley and John Keats. Although most people at the time preferred the women Romantics like Shelley’s wife Mary and Charlotte Turner Smith.’
‘Mary Shelley, didn’t she write Dracula?’ George asked.
‘Frankenstein.’ Tibha corrected him.
‘Either way,’ George said, ‘there’s nothing very romantic about that.’ Tibha grinned at him and he reached for his diazepam, turned to his screen and started reading his own manuscript. But he found it hard to concentrate as Tibha’s words of love vibrated through his brain like a jackhammer in the hands of a beginner. ‘The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song…’ George, once again, deleted the word Christmas and replaced it with the word ‘Festival.’
He was becoming bored and restless and announced to Tibha, ‘I am going for a walk around the building to see what we have here.’ Tibha didn’t reply. She didn’t hear him. Tibha was away somewhere with Charlotte Smith.
‘And you?’ he asked as he stood up, this time interrupting her. ‘Which of the Romantics do you prefer?’
Tibha looked George directly in the eye. ‘The men,’ she replied. ‘I always prefer the men.’