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Thinking of Akhmatova

Sweetheart. . .

It is Wednesday today: Mercredi in French. The root of Mercredi is


mercury, the Roman god of trade and commerce and analogous to the
Greek Hermes. Hermes was the messenger of the gods and sacred to
writers and poets. Where are the writers and poets? Where are the
gods? Have they been banished? The poets and writers have certainly
been silenced.

Wednesday is the day I am allowed to get out my piece of paper


and my old fashioned pencil. I sit in my enviro-conditioned cell, in my 5
metres by 5 high-tech confinement and am permitted four hours of
recreation. Yes my Counsellor calls writing recreation. It has been
listed as my past-time: from vocation, from meaningful and noble
pursuit to past-time. What a fall? Perhaps one day speech will become
a luxury. Words will be rationed out and times designated for their use.
Licenses required for certain phrases. Whole sentences may be traded
on the black market. When you take a plough away a man can no
longer till the ground. When you take his cup away he can no longer
drink.

Yesterday was the first day I felt spring. Yesterday was my outer-air
day. (I was transferred three months ago. Detention Centre NR 33.
Region 6 - West Atlantic. Were you informed?). For two hours I am
permitted to walk in the compound. After days and days of tungsten
and neon lighting, days and days of holo-V, days and days of regulated
pursuits, of psychometric assessment, of counseling and rehabilitation,
of brainlessness it feels good: even if it rains, and it rains here
endlessly. An outer-air day is a respite: a breach, a break in a heavy
sky. I have walked, shuffled, in my bright yellow jump suit, rain running
down my neck, my plimsolled feet squelching and splashing in puddles
and felt momentarily like a prince. The gust of wind against my face,
the cry of a sea bird, cloud building and forming, remind me of the
world: the real awkward world: the world that circles the sun, the world
of rocks and waves and forests and rivers: a strange raw world that
frustrates and confounds us. It cannot be governed. Like me that world
has been declared an enemy. So when I walk, when I cross the
compound from high-wall to high-wall, I listen for that world’s call. I
listen for its whisper. We are both fugitives.

So for me today is spring. Wherever you are I’m sure you know it’s
spring. Still I feel the need to say it’s spring. There is something
ancient and mysterious about the arrival of spring. You knew it would
come, it has always come and yet when it comes you realise you
doubted. Somewhere deep inside you feared it would never come
again. Why is that? We see ourselves in the world around us. We look
at the world as at a mirror. It has been winter a long time. Three years
of winter. A winter through which springs and summers and autumns
have passed: a winter that always comes back to this winter within.

I don’t know how you get these letters. I don’t even know if you get
these letters. Yes I am permitted to write them on paper but I must
send them as e-txt. They must be entered on one of the communal q-
Comps and posted for inspection. Who reads them before you? I
cannot say. They are no doubt scanned and screened. I have heard
that certain words are electronically redacted. The range of words
targeted is wide. It can be anything from the politically sensitive to a
variety of everyday words. It is updated in 8-hour periods. I cannot
predict or write around. Perhaps what you receive makes sense.
Perhaps it makes no sense.
I write on paper so I can read back later. When the door has been
sealed, when the blue light is the only light or when the moon shines
down through the one tiny skylight, I go back over the words. And
there are two sets of words: the words on the paper and the words that
float in the spaces, the unsaid words between the pencil marks and
arrangements of letters. Those words are for you. I hope you can sense
them. I hope you understand that what is unsaid is what is really said.

Some nights I just drift. If I am not tired from work, if my mind is not
scrambled from the psychometrics, I let my thoughts run free.
Do you remember the apartment we occasionally shared? On the
eleventh floor. Do you remember how it looked out on that communal
garden? Rather meager with its stretches of grass, its struggling trees
and shrubs, its pathways winding and lined with adverts. Do you
remember how we would sit there some winter mornings at the
window and look out. Wrapped in the duvet, the q-Comp streaming
some piece of rare, classical music. I remember the mist clearing over
a distant line of poplar and the apartment blocks, the distant busi-
Towers coming into view. Then there would be a lone figure walking.
Perhaps an old man clutching shopping bags. And we would wonder if
it was his shopping or his life-belongings he carried as he shuffled
beneath a damp and leafless cherry blossom.
What have I left behind? That world is now as distant as a neutron
star or some great red giant. It slips away daily.
When I think of you I think of small things: of you buying food.
Stepping from an m-Rail. I worry about you. I wonder how you survive.
I do not like to think of the harassment you must endure. Do people
shun you? Do people turn away from you? The worshipped citizen is so
easily frightened and disappointing.

I think of the city of my birth: London, once the centre of an empire.


Now it is an overcrowded outpost on the edge of our common
European homeland. We know there were those who saw that coming
years ago. They saw what was beneath the deluge of trivia and
delusion and distraction: everyone dreaming of a miracle: everyone
greedy and grasping. How many times do people fall down the same
hole? How many times do they disappear into the same tangled wood?
People watch the deceptions of their own thinking and are fascinated.
They are hypnotised. Their consciousness is adulterated. No longer do
they need to be dazzled because they are their own bedazzlement.
They cannot see the slide into slavery: because they cannot bear the
responsibility of freedom. Throw out all the values that give you
independence, which enable you to regulate your life and live freely.
Now the future is always imminent but never arrives: utopia by
sleight of hand. It is postponed until tomorrow. But tomorrow never
comes. Each tomorrow is just another today: another today of waiting
on tomorrow.

Now we assume that Beijing was always the powerhouse of the


world, Moscow always the shadow to Berlin. Now we accept the death
camps were a fiction, the gulag an invention. The dissidents are once
more the dissidents. And those who once stood against such things are
entangled in self-delusion.

Sweetheart, do you regret the choices we made? There are times I


do. I have endangered you. My actions have torn a hole in your life.
They have scarred you, perhaps to your innermost being. Yet the
desire for truth was too great: the opportunity, the chance to catch a
glimpse of the things hidden from us. No I do not speak of anything
mysterious, of the numinous. I speak of the simple narrative, the story
of how we get where we are. When we must reinvent the narrative
daily the past becomes dangerous. If the future has become a weapon
the past is our tangled and bitter heart. The one we hide from. The one
we have hidden from us and for us.
I have never forgotten that morning? I am thankful you were not
there. What angel spared you the trauma, the indignity of complicity
by ‘presence’?
My body froze when I heard the voice on the intercom.
‘Citizen Van der Waarde, Domestic-Intel, section 4 is requesting
entry to your abode.
‘Yes,’ I answered, attempting to keep the tremble from my voice.
And what choice did I have. Of course they could have broken the
door down but that would have meant a report from the officers. No!
Even the most brutish enforcer of law is not without consideration
when his or her free time is in question.
Then they stood in the pallid light of the doorway. There were three
of them: one in plainclothes, two in uniform. The plainclothes, one
hand pulling a smooth leather glove from the other, spoke.
‘You are citizen Van der Waarde?’ he asked.
‘Of course,’ I answered. What purpose would there have been in
denial?
To his left one of the uniforms confirmed something into his
mouthpiece. The plainclothes looked about the room, eyeing it as
though assessing the habitat of some strange species. He beckoned to
one of the uniforms to scan and enter the data from my PiD.
And it was such a fine spring morning. Sunlight catching the small
window that let in on the kitchen: the smell of coffee, a rare treat,
suffusing the air. I knew the wild peonies were blooming below, from
the communal garden. I had just been walking there. How it always
reminded me of you.

They took me to the interrogation centre. Flexi-cuffed, tagged,


pushed into the back of a dark Security Vehicle. One of the uniforms
stood out on the street as they brought me from the lift, the semi-
automatic on semi-automatic, his visored eyes scanning the
pavements, the roofs, as though concerned someone might attempt to
rescue me: spectacle for the few half-curious spectators.
In the back of the vehicle thin slivers of light shone down from the
roof. The uniforms sat across from me like two ancient statues.
Plainclothes sat up front. He pulled a pack of pistachios from the
pocket of his long linen coat and began to chew distractedly. The
sirens blared as we raced along Cranbrook to Rehabilitation Centre –
Sector 22.

The charge? That on June 06 2037, in the city of Cardiff I had illicitly
and in contravention of Article 789 Section 21 Clause 89 of ES directive
34 -(Belgrade 2026) purchased and subsequently been found in
possession of prohibited literature – namely two paper copies of ‘anti-
peace’ literature from the early twenty-first century. To this was added
the charge of being in possession of artefacts of an antique nature
without the required Handling license. (License Nr 386 – Handling of
Objects of Historical Importance - Rome 2022).

On an overcast July morning I was brought before the Adjudicator: a


young woman with peroxide blond hair, red lipped and dressed in a
starched, white overall. As I was led into the chamber she glanced up,
taking her eyes from her p-C, (I believe she was viewing a fashion
show from Lisbon). Her manner was irate. Perhaps she didn’t like being
disturbed by inconvenient questions of justice.
My defence statement – (compiled by my assigned Defence
Counsel), stated, (unconvincingly), that I had unwittingly purchased
the books unaware they were proscribed literature. I had been the
victim of the seller’s duplicity. However the Prosecutor demonstrated,
(convincingly), that not only should I have been aware that the said
artefacts were proscribed but that the place of purchase - a
disreputable underground market of subversive and contentious ideas,
a meeting place of undesirable and un-social elements - indicated a
clandestine transaction and suggested foreknowledge. My profession –
digital networking monitor for local-Gov - called into question my claim
to ignorance of Article 789 Section 21 Clause 89 of ES directive 34.
When I contended I was aware of Article 789 and Section 21, but not of
clause 89, the judge responded she found that a regrettable oversight
on my behalf and perhaps indicative of a careless and cavalier
attitude. The Prosecutor then called my personal file into evidence. He
portrayed me as unsettled.
‘Madame Adjudicator,’ he said, ‘the defendant shows a marked
aversion to the settled life. At the age of 38 he is neither registered a
carer nor same-sexual. He presently has relations with a woman who is
childless and an opponent of reproductive licensing. His data-thread
shows a proclivity for unapproved subjects. There is more than a
passing interest in matters of a religious or spiritual nature, a
scepticism concerning the attainability of Harmonisation and a
fascination with questions of individual identity and historical
perspective. On a psychosocial indicator he falls outside most
categories. Those categories he does fall within suggest a reluctant co-
operator. I propose Madam Adjudicator that Citizen Van der Waarde
not only purchased two paper copies of proscribed literature, not only
handled without license artefacts of an antique nature but that
indicators of psychic mal-adjustment are present.’

One year’s rehabilitave detention: (Sweetheart how my heart sank


when I realised our separation. When I saw you standing outside the
Justice Council, waiting with the other friends and families. We did not
know then our trials were only beginning). It should have ended there.
I should have seen the State appointed counsellors, followed the re-
education, pretended to suffer my incarceration with remorse and
been free. Still I fear the Madame Adjudicator’s curiosity had been
piqued. Maybe my ‘insolence’ when before the bench stoked her ire.
‘Citizen Van der Waarde, why did you wish to concern yourself with
proscribed subjects?’
‘Madame Adjudicator all history is to a degree proscribed and
therefore worthy of investigation.’
‘Citizen Van der Waarde do not resort to insolence in defending the
indefensible.’
‘Madame Adjudicator I am defending myself against accusations
made by the state not the indefensible.’
‘Citizen Van der Waarde you will confine yourself to simple answers.
This court is not a place for an egotistical display of intellectual
arrogance.’
I assume she ordered the prosecutor to follow up my case. In all
likelihood a further file was created. The deeper layers of my data
thread were brought forward. (I have no doubt some form of legal
sophistry was invoked to make this possible. When morality, a
transcendent or spiritual understanding of ethics no longer underpins
law, then the State is free to site expedience as justification – you
remember me discussing this with you.)
Three months after sentencing I received notification from the
Detention Centre Protector that I was being investigated for anti-Social
tendencies. Analysis was providing – the Protector’s words – ‘evidence
of a backward looking and isolationist identity’. ‘You will be notified of
the outcome and if you should appear before a tribunal,’ he continued.
‘As you are currently under rehabilitave detention a new charge, and
more importantly a charge of anti-Social behaviour would mean your
case will no longer be considered judicial but psychiatric and
consequently all hearings will be held in camera and without the need
for a defence file’.

Sweetheart, so much has happened since then: things that should


not have happened but did. It is strange and confusing. More so, I am
sure, for you. If I was not in this cell, could not see, not touch the walls
around me I could imagine it had all been some disturbing dream:
some anomaly of time. A strange pocket to another dimension opened
up and I got entangled in its reality. Such ideas are interesting. They
are entertaining. They do not explain the loss of freedom. They do not
explain the cold fact that I am a prisoner. I am a man whose life has
been taken from him.

The new charges? I had only myself to blame. It was not the
accusation of ‘anti-Social tendency’ that caught me but my own desire
for truth. From the moment I first began compiling the record I knew I
was taking a risk. I knew I had stepped over a line yet thought I was
secure. Still when right and wrong are arbitrary, when justice is
convenience, we are never secure.
Why did I do it? Why did I continue? My instinct, my sense of a truth
long buried ate at me from within. It woke me in the night. All the little
things coalesce: the inherited sayings from a parent, a grandparent.
The knowing looks, the whispered confessions, the hints and
suggestions.

Sweetheart how careless I was? How inconsiderate. Perhaps those


who remain compliant, who say ‘play along’ are right. Those who hide
their lives under a million small lies, who duck and weave and never
act, are correct. My love for you condemns me for my foolishness
every day. Yet it was your love that broke open the desire for truth.

It seemed so natural: so simple. A record of people’s experiences,


their memories, their observations. Who would have thought that the
fabric of lives, the stories individuals tell, no matter how incomplete or
bitter or prescient would be considered a threat? No, I did not tell you. I
did not want you to be complicit. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps you
would have talked me out of it.

I assigned each story a number. I started with my family. Anonymity


I promised, secrecy I guaranteed. At first some were afraid to speak.
They would retreat and murmur I should be careful. Was I not aware
Domestic Intel had agents everywhere? Anti-terrorist officers worked
undercover. All local-Gov departments, public-State interfaces were
riddled with Interior-Ministry. And yet I won confidence. I won trust.
You remember how I would travel. There is nothing like a busy m-
Rail terminal, a late night coach halt, a gaudy franchised Service
Station on an inter-City route to unseal lips. It is a story as old as time
itself. Only the pathological, those beyond reach have no need of
confession. Few are built to remain closed forever.

I built that record with passion. It opened up another world to me. I


began to see the real world, the world that exists beneath the lies, the
ever-present ‘visions’. And it grew: all the threads, all the tangled pasts
and pains, hopes, dreams. Until the stacks of hand-written pages, the
sheaves of paper were becoming a problem. True I hid them in a sub-
rented lock-up. But I needed something more unified. The solution
presented itself one rainy June afternoon in Reading. (Sweetheart how
I remember rainy afternoons in June. Then I could look freely across an
open space, look at trees and fields. Then I could dream myself into
the mist and green. I think of a June day and I feel the reassuring touch
of your hand on mine.)
He was a refugee from the American Confederacy. Shuffling about
the m-Rail station, he approached me asking if I would purchase some
food for him. Dressed in a soiled quilted jacket, a polyester hat
stretched over his ears, he looked desperate. His eyes stared at me,
almost beseechingly, through a pair of broken tortoiseshell glasses. I
indicated the two station-Marshalls, lightly armed, patrolling the mall.
‘Aren’t you taking a risk?’ I asked.
He shook his head.
‘Only if you make a fuss’.
‘And if I make a fuss.’ I added.
’Then they’ll just move me on.’ (I learned later many local-Marshalls
make use of hang-abouts and illegals to procure and carry various
contrabands that they – the Marshalls - trade on the black-market).
We sat in a small nutri-Bar. I bought him a plate of steamed rice and
two over cooked tofu steaks.
He was in his early thirties and homeless, living between the lines.
He had no legal status. Alex - trained in system encryption.
‘Information can be placed on sub-stream q-Clouds without a
discernable iD trace’ he informed me after questioning. ‘You can, he
said, ‘build a floating node that is near to invisible. Only people in the
‘know’ can retrieve it. ‘Like how written manuscripts were handed
around secretly in the Soviet regimes of the mid twentieth.’
I was intrigued. An idea was forming. If I could place all my hand
written work in one place, somewhere secret and where only I had
access it would be safer than holding it in the lock-up. (One never
knew who was snooping around such places. Who was spying and who
was informing). I suggested to this homeless young man that perhaps I
could help him. It was of course a risk. ‘I may even be able to obtain
black-market credits for you,’ I explained. You could at least feed
yourself.’
We agreed to meet two weeks later in Paradisia – the Brentford
retail-Complex - north London. I thought it wiser not to let him come to
the apartment. I was not sure how to make the proposal, to tell him
what exactly I was engaged in. Technically illegal yet hardly criminal I
hoped he would understand. Really he was in no position to object. Still
I could not be sure. It took a couple of meetings. I bought him food,
gave him clothes I no longer needed. Eventually we agreed on a plan.
He had access to a pirated q-Comp, he claimed. (I did not ask how). He
would set up the sub-stream and then show me how to operate and
access the floating node and how to send the information.
It went well. He was quick and diligent, innovative and easy to work
with. Soon not only had I gained his trust but he mine. I obtained the
black-market credits – remember how we used them ourselves - and
brought him food and clothes; I even put him in touch with someone
who could help him with a place to live. It was then I made my only
mistake.
Sweetheart I look back on that day and wonder. How such a small
thing was my undoing: a simple gesture. I replay and replay it: as if
trying to look behind it all. Trying to see if there was some hidden
intent, some unconscious desire to be found guilty. This is how it was.

An afternoon in mid December: I have arranged to meet Alex. He


has updated some upload protocols and needs to show me how to use
them. We were supposed to meet in a nutri-Bar in South Woodford. As
it is close to the apartment and I am running late I suggest he meet me
in the communal centre in the basement of the apartment building.
I arrive early. I find an old plastic chair and sit there, staring out the
full-length dusty windows. The sun falls from an aluminium blue sky.
Long aircraft trails float high on the cold air. The grass on the building
concourse is thin and the pathways muddy. A fellow resident, an
Algerian woman, shuffles aimlessly around the large room. I know her
to see. Sometimes I talk to her. Widowed, called Samia, she lives alone
in a tiny apartment on the twelfth floor. Her only son, an official in the
Homeland/North-African Inter-Regional Commission visits rarely. (We
saw him a couple of times - remember. Small, with long dark hair and
black eyes, he had a quick nervous manner. When passing he greeted
us haughtily but then scurried away. Samia once told me he brought
her food, helped with credits. Yet she always appeared dishevelled:
her clothing threadbare. Lines of sadness, even desperation creased
her face. She talked of him proudly. Still, I believe he considered her a
hindrance. In the corridors of power, even for a favoured ethnicity, it is
better to minimise ties and personal obligations.)
Samia walks and paces, then sits and, like me, stares out the
windows.
Alex approaches the entrance. The sun pales the branches of bare
poplars. It flashes off upper windows and a cc-V array. His tortoiseshell
glasses have been fixed. A brown gore-tex cape covers his shoulders. I
feel sudden warmth for him: affection. Perhaps this what fathers feel
for sons.
He sits in front of me and places a large carry-All on the table. Then
he discreetly passes me two a5 pages with carefully written
instructions. ‘It should be clear,’ he says. ‘There shouldn’t be any
problems.’ I thank him, fold the two pages and slip them into the
pocket of my old heavy wool jacket. I give him a bag of food: some
vegetables, couscous, noodles, eggs, juice and a pack of expensive
cigarettes. He pulls the cigarettes from the hypermarket sac and
begins to tear open the plastic wrapping.
There is nothing illegal or untoward in the action. It is a natural
gesture. (You can see it, as in an old MVE. The pale, cold hands, a little
stiff and in fingerless gloves, slowly tearing free the wrapping. The
camera pulling back and there I am, gazing over Alex’s shoulder, my
face in profile, dust hanging in the winter-sun air. You can even hear
the vague hum of traffic from the Eastern Avenue t-Bahn: moving and
moving down to Redbridge.) A chair scuffs off cement to my right.
Samia is walking toward us. (The director chooses not to show this but
instead cuts straight to Samia’s head, wrapped in a faded scarf, her
dark eyes as though breaching the space between Alex and I.)
‘Please, you have a cigarette?’
(You see her outstretched hand, lined and henna-tattooed.)
Alex hesitates. (Close up of his fingers tightening on the paper
pack, his eyes defensive.) Then he answers, ‘why not?’ (Samia is
smiling now, her face lit-up.)
‘Thank you’ she says, reaching out and taking the offered tobacco.
Her hand quivers as she bends and Alex offers her a lighter he pulls
from his pocket. (Their shadows fall on the table surface, a little
elongated, Alex’s hand held out, Samia’s head bending and then the
curl of smoke.) She turns to me.
‘You are man from eleventh floor. Number 39. With nice woman.
She come from England?’ (Now I come back into view. The sunlight is
falling across my face, causing my eyes to narrow. I smile and shake
my head.)
‘No. Denmark.’
Samia’s sad eyes do not seem to register. She continues.
‘Yes number 39. 39. Good people.’
(The camera turns to the long windows. Rays of sunlight cause the
image to momentarily burn out. You see the dark spindles of the
poplar as though scratched in black ink on a torn piece of paper. A
figure silhouetted and in a long coat is walking away from view. You
are left wondering who that figure is. What is its purpose? Perhaps you
are looking into some other world behind this world: two worlds
meeting and briefly tangling and then?)

Alex remembered the number. Do I need to tell you the rest?


Fifteen months later, while four months into my sentence, Alex, having
not seen me or had any contact with me for nearly a year and
desperate for food or help turned up at number 39. He turned up at
number 39 just as a Domestic-Intel detail was finishing a preliminary
search. It was too good an opportunity for these illustrious Citizens to
let pass. They took Alex in and he broke. The floating node, the record,
my ‘anti-peace’ activity was discovered and the Prosecutor had her
evidence.

When I appeared again before the Madame Adjudicator, flexi-cuffed,


e-tagged and in my yellow jump-suit she was not slow to show her
satisfaction.
‘Citizen Van der Waarde,’ she said.
(Since our last meeting her hair had been re-dyed. Her lips were
heavily painted. There was something louche and superior in her
manner
‘Citizen Van der Waarde you are before this chamber charged with
the grave offence of collating anti-peace propaganda with full
knowledge and with intent. (Article 341 – Sections 23 to 76). Further
you are charged with misuse of illegal data and communication
services. (Article 101 Clause 573 – Section 129). As the first charge,
the charge of collating anti-peace propaganda comes under affairs of
Inter-Regional Security and as there is a substantiated and
demonstrable data-thread to verify guilt any plea to the contrary will
be dismissed. For the second charge you may plead as you like.
However I must warn you that a plea of innocence, if not proven may
result in a further charge of wasting this chamber’s time and
attempting to undermine its working. Do I make myself clear?’
I nodded.
‘Citizen Van der Waarde?’
‘You make yourself perfectly clear Madame Adjudicator.’

Four years Full-Rehabilitave-Detention followed by two years


mandatory ‘peace-work’. We know it could have been worse.

Later tonight, sweetheart, I will lie in my cell and remember this


letter back. I will bind the threads of the past around my heart. They
are all I have now.

As it is spring I will look for the stars. I no longer know where you
are. I no longer know how you are. I no longer have any claim on you.
Still when I think of you on these nights the words of the Russian
poetess, Anna Akhmatova come to mind. Written so long ago. . .

Black and enduring separation


I share equally with you.
Why weep? Give me your hand,
Promise me you will come again.
You and I are like high
Mountains and we can’t move closer.
Just send me word.
At midnight sometime through the stars.*
Copyright © Peter Millington February 2010

*Anna Akhmatova. In Dream. 1946

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