Even now, despite the passage of so many years, we were not permitted to enter the city. It was still far too dangerous. Instead, the Cantonal authorities had built what amounted to a small town a few miles off to accommodate the rush of visitors who were expected to attend the demi-centennial. It had been put up in a hurry and would doubtless fall down just as quickly but, as it was located so near to the most famous set of ruins in the world, that hardly seemed to matter.
As befitted my position I had been given a balcony room on the top floor of one of the best of the newly-built hotels. The establishment was officially termed the Hôtel de la Nouvelle Païx, but my Gwendoline called it Gimcrack Towers and the name stuck so far as we were concerned. The outside of the building resembled a traditional Alpine ski lodge but inside it was, my trained eye informed me, constructed of concrete, plasterboard and veneer.
Still, it was comfortable enough and I was not expecting to spend very much of my time there. I had work to do.
My story is not directly concerned with my job as an architect nor with my business, which was nominally to represent my profession at the Commemoration of the Catastrophe and actually to maintain my links with my colleagues in the field. Or, if you prefer brutal honesty, to tout for work. I knew - as every European architect knew - that one day a New Geneva would be built. When that day came we all wanted, to put it crudely, a piece of the action. Meeting and greeting the Cantonal officials was an important part of my mission. The most important part, if I was honest with myself. The Catastrophe, as the destruction of Geneva was known, meant little to me personally. I was born after the event and none of my family had been directly involved in it.
That whole year of 2106 had been dedicated to remembrance of the Catastrophe but the main events - their heart if you like - were centred around the seventh of July, which was the day the Fire from Heaven had fallen on the City of Geneva and struck it down.
Gwendoline and I moved into Gimcrack Towers on the second of July and set to work. It was tedious stuff, in the main, for a practising architect such as myself. I was much happier sitting at my drawing board, or consulting my tables of materials, or being on site with a good, competent clerk of works, than glad-handing potential customers. I was very good at it, all the same. My firm would not have prospered nor my name be on the company letterheading had I not possessed the knack of relating to our customers and understanding their needs and their desires. For a building is so much more than wood, stone and tile, is it not? It is a living-place and a working-place. It has a relationship with the human beings who use it - one just as close as that between a person and his dæmon, if I may be allowed to exaggerate for effect.
All day, every day, I attended functions, conferences, seminars, presentations, working lunches, workshops and lectures. Every evening there were official entertainments at which Gwendoline and I had to be seen to be enjoying ourselves. Concerts, opera, gymnastic displays, formal dinners; many of them transmitted to the whole world, for this was an event of global significance. Moments of levity or relief from the overwhelming atmosphere of seriousness were rare, although I was fortunate enough to witness the occasion when the Elector of Latvia fell into an ornamental pond and emerged with a koi carp clinging to his panther-dæmon's left ear. I laughed like a drain; but later that day, discreetly and in the privacy of my room while ' phoning my wife Michelle. There was no point in risking giving offence to a potential client.
And so the days passed, and if I missed the weight of a Rotring pen in my hand and the smell of cartridge paper in my nostrils I did my best to push those regrets to the back of my mind where Gwendoline could take care of them.
- 0 -
There was, of course, no prospect of rebuilding the original city. When the Fire fell and the Dome collapsed a great mass of reinforced concrete - many thousands of tons of it - crushed the buildings and streets of the city below to powder. But there was more to Geneva than offices, apartment blocks and roadways. In caverns deep underground great nucleonic power plants had been constructed to generate the anbaric force which lit, watered and ventilated the city. When the giant slabs of the roof came crashing down they penetrated through to those caverns and destroyed the machinery within, together with the vessels that contained the rare earths which powered them, spilling their contents. The emanations from those minerals were deadly and would remain so for many hundreds of years, the theologians said. No bodies had ever been brought out of the City. It was the greatest mass grave in history.
To return to my story: One evening two days before the Sunday when the climax of the commemorations was due to take place I was sitting on the balcony of my hotel room sipping at a glass of cognac and looking out over the City. I had an hour's free time before turning in. Had I been at home in Dunedin the sky would still have been light, but down here in these southerly latitudes the night was well advanced. There was, in addition, a new moon. It was not dark, however. The ruins of Geneva glowed with an eerie blue-green light caused, as I knew, by the lethal rays which bathed them. It was an extraordinary sight - unique in all the world - and it had an hypnotic fascination for Gwendoline and me. The light - so alien, so unearthly - attracted me strangely. I felt that one day I would like to walk across the space of miles which separated the Hôtel de la Nouvelle Païx from the remains of the Citadel of Geneva and let the light wrap itself around me, wash me, purge me of the sins of the world. The conflict between this gentle urge and the realistic awareness that to do so would lead to a horrible, painful death piqued my desire for self-knowledge. Was I the suicidal type? I don't think so, said Gwendoline, and I agreed with her. So why this uncharacteristic compulsion?
Best not to think about it too much, Gwendoline said, regarding me closely. Just look at it.
Again, I gazed across to the jagged ruins of the city. Nobody had entered it for fifty years, ever since the first doomed rescuers had returned, sick and hideously scarred with radiation burns. In one respect its glow reminded me of the Northern Lights, or Aurora, which can often be seen from Caledonia, even such relatively southern parts as my home town occupies. The colour was very similar - a kind of pale green-blue, as I have already remarked. But in another respect it differed as it was constant, whereas the Aurora flickers and shifts incessantly in the Solar wind.
Corpse-light, it was sometimes called, recalling the dim radiance which is given off by rotting matter. It coloured the darkness with its essence.
Despite the light's sinister connotations and the unsettling thoughts it raised in my mind, to sit in a wicker chair on my hotel balcony and look at it for a while was restful after the hurly-burly of the day and, I had found, marvellously conducive to sleep. On this day I had, I suppose, been out there for three quarters of an hour and was almost ready for bed. I was standing up, stretching out my arms and yawning, and stepping through the Frankish windows which led into my room, when something stopped me.
Somewhere nearby, hidden in the deep green night, a woman was sobbing.
- 0 -
My first impulse was to call out, 'Are you all right?' But no, that would be wrong; it was not so very unusual to weep beside a tomb. This woman's grief was a private affair and I should tactfully ignore it.
Help her, said Gwendoline.
No, I replied. We must respect her privacy. We must leave her alone. I resumed walking into my room, but I had forgotten about my glass of brandtwijn. My right foot caught against a leg of the side-table on which it rested. It fell against the wall, splintered and broke. The sound was immense in the night-time hush.
'What's that?' came a woman's voice. Damn.
'I'm sorry,' I replied. 'I've broken a glass. Terribly clumsy of me. I'll have to get somebody to clear it up in the morning. No sense calling anyone out now. They'll all be tired. Not fair on them. Not fair at all.'
'You'd better be careful tomorrow. Put slippers on before you go out on the balcony. You might cut yourself. Broken glass is nasty stuff.'
'Yes, I will. Thank you. Good night, now.'
'Good night.' I had instinctively turned to the right toward the sound of the voice, but now I faced back into my room. I stepped through the doors and began to slide them back when, just at the threshold of my hearing I heard a single word from outside.
I went back out onto the balcony. 'Yes?'
Oh, that was too abrupt, said Gwendoline.
Yes, I had been rather too brusque. I had probably offended the woman, and I didn't want to do that. Besides, her voice was beautiful - low and melodious - and I was wondering if she were beautiful too.
'Were you crying just now?' I asked.
'Yes, I was. I'm sorry, did I disturb you?'
'No, no, not at all. It is very sad, isn't it? Such a fine city, so terribly brought down. Such a tragedy even now, though it was so long ago. I don't suppose you remember it. Did you learn about it in school?'
'They taught me about it, yes. I didn't pay much attention. What brings you here?'
I told her about the Royal Brytish Institution of Architecture and my job as its chairman.
'Ah,' she said in an amused voice. 'Looking for work, are you?'
'Of course,' I replied, concealing my surprise as best I could. This woman was sharp. 'And what about you?'
'Oh, I'm here with my son. He's involved with theological research.'
'Do I know him?'
'Simon Whitchurch. You may have heard of him.'
'Yes, that's right.'
'The man who discovered the Blue Shift?'
'Then you must be Lady Pangborne. My lady, you have had me at a disadvantage.' I blushed invisibly. A low chuckle came from the shadows.
'And now you have me at one,' she said.
'I am sorry, my lady. I should have introduced myself properly…'
'But this darkness - it promotes anonymity, does it not?'
'Even so, my lady, I am very sorry to have abused your confidence. I am Peter Manderley, and this is Gwendoline.'
'Pleased to meet you, Sir Peter. I am Sonya Whitchurch, and this is Alpharintus.'
"Sir Peter", eh? So she had known who I was all along. She had been poking gentle fun at me.
'It's odd, though,' I said.
'My name being Peter and your son being a Simon. Coincidental. They're not very common names, are they? I mean - the attribution is a bit tricky.'
'You mean the connection with the Christ? Simon Peter; the Betrayer and the first Pope?'
'Yes, I suppose so. Although that kind of thing isn't supposed to matter any more, is it?'
We fell silent. Then Lady Pangborne said, 'Well, Sir Peter, it is getting late. I must bid you good night.'
'Good night, my lady.' I heard the rattle as she closed her balcony door.
She had gone, and I hadn't got round to asking her the question that was most on my mind. Why were you crying, Lady Sonya?
Why indeed? She was perhaps the most well-known woman of her time. Lady Sonya was a tireless campaigner for peace. She had prevented numerous wars in Europe, Asia and elsewhere simply by going, with no regard for the risk to herself, to the leaders involved and convincing them - by logical argument but, more importantly, by the sheer force of her character and her heartfelt belief in the futility of armed conflict - to come to the conference table and talk. She chaired those talks with charm, wit and grace. She never abandoned anyone. Her will was powered by a deep determination and she would not let go; not while there was still hope of peace.
Lady Pangborne; who never gave up. Sonya; whose face was known and adored the world around, who had made enemies, yes, but whose friends would happily die for her.
Sunny - for that was, as everyone knew, her pet name - had been alone in her room, unhappy, distressed and afraid.
- 0 -
'Operator? Hello? Yes, I'd like to make an international call, please. Dunedin 679785. That's in Caledonia. C-a-l-e-d-o-n-i-a. Yes, in Brytain. Thank you, I'll hold.
'Sweetheart? Is that you? You'll have to speak up a bit. This is a terrible line. Yes, I'm well. And a bit tired. Do I sound tired? Oh well, can't be helped.
'How are you? And the kids? Tell them Gwenny sends her love to Moley and Ratty. And to your Tonio, of course. Are you keeping busy? Been watching the AV a lot?
'You saw me? When? I don't remember being a-visioned. Oh, there. They weren't interested in me, you know. It was that moviegram star - whatsherface. Madge something? Oh yes. That's why you were watching? To get some fashion tips? Not looking out for me, then, ha-ha. Yes, there was a perfectly good reason why I was there. The Autarch of Panama was there too. You know we've got an office in Panama City.
'You're not going to bleach your hair? You want to look like Madge? Oh, no - please spare us. Brown is fine by me. Anyway, don't you want to hear my news?
'Mostly the same old stuff really. I bumped into old Harrison at lunch - remember him? We met him at the Jowett's last year. That's right: big white beard, naughty sense of humour. No - he's didn't crack any of his specials. It's all a bit too serious for that. You know.
'Oh, and you'll like this. Guess who I met last night? Go on…
'No, not him.
'No, not him either.
'No, you're not even warm. I'm going to have to tell you. It was Lady Sonya. Yes - that Lady Sonya. Lady Pangborne herself.
'What? I don't know. It was too dark. Yes, dark. Yes, I'm sure she was just as beautiful as ever. No, I couldn't see her clothes. No - silly! It wasn't like that. Besides, she's over sixty, isn't she? Nearer seventy, more likely.
'No, it's like I said. It was night. She's in the next room to me, or the one next to that. We were on our balconies. We had a little chat, that's all. Really.
'Oh - there go the pips. I'll have to hang up. Bye, darling. I'll be home soon. Bye.'
I replaced the receiver and considered my position. Tricky... I'd better choose my wife's coming-home present carefully. It shouldn't be so good she'd think I was feeling guilty about something, but definitely something to make my return so much the more welcome.
- 0 -
I saw Lady Sonya the following afternoon, but only from a distance. It was while I was leaving the main convention hall. She was on the other side of the road, getting out of a large black car in front of the theatre. She was carrying her mink-dæmon in her arms and was flanked by two Civil Guardsmen.
Famous people are often a disappointment when you see them in real life. They're smaller, less impressive, less brilliant than they appear in magazines, or in kinos or on the AV. They look tired, so many of them. And so it was with Lady Pangborne - she was slightly stooped, I thought, and her hair, which always came over in photos as a rich, glossy black, was dull and grey-streaked. At least, this was the impression I got of her in that fleeting fraction of a second before she was swept into the auditorium and out of sight. I had my own business to attend to or else I might have followed her and tried to have a quick. It was probably just as well that I did not try. One or another of those burly policemen would have rebuffed me, gently but effectively, and I would have felt ashamed.
So I went about my business - which was to chair a symposium on the applications of new types of concrete in the construction of wide-chord arches - and she went about hers.
- 0 -
And then it was the evening again and I went out upon my balcony once more to look out upon the stricken city of Geneva. I wondered if - no, I hoped that - Lady Pangborne might come out also. There was, I knew, no reason why she should. She would have had a busy day, a tiring day, as I had. Hers might have been all the more exhausting for the constant necessity of smiling, looking glamorous and attractive, dealing with the unremitting attention - whether welcome or not - that would have been directed at her. It was not at all likely that she would want to come out onto her balcony and run the risk of being drawn into a tedious conversation with yet another middle-aged man.
I sat and waited nevertheless, and regarded the steady glow from the fallen city with a fixed stare of my own. And, just as I was thinking of picking up my glass and going to bed, I heard the sound of a metal door sliding open and saw a soft flare of yellow light from within her - for I instinctively knew it was her - room.
'Lady Pangborne?' I called out into the night.
'Sir Peter.' She did not sound surprised to hear my voice. She's a woman, after all, said Gwendoline.
'Would you care to join me in a glass of cognac?' How did I dare say that? There was a pause and I wondered if I had offended her.
'I should like that. You are in room 711, are you not?'
'Yes, my lady.'
'Then I shall pop round in a couple of minutes.'
That gave me just enough time to bring a second chair out of my room onto the balcony and get a second glass of brandtwijn from the cabinet. I placed the chair at what I hoped was a discreet distance from my own and waited. Shortly there was a gentle knock on my door and I opened it. Lady Sonya was standing outside, wearing a grey silk robe and holding a bottle of uisque in her left hand and, to my surprise, a cigarette in the other.
'Please come in,' I said, and stood aside. The train of her robe swept the floor behind her as she entered. Her dæmon was resting in her left pocket.
'Right,' she said. 'This is forty-year-old Glen Bruce malt. I feel like drinking scotch tonight. I take it you have some spare glasses?'
'Yes, Lady Sonya.'
'Just Sonya, please. I told you that yesterday. You are Peter and I am Sonya. Peter and Sonya. Yes.'
There was a strange, indescribably bleak, tone to her voice. I did not understand it; but I indicated that she should step out through the door and onto the balcony. She did so, sat down and handed me the bottle. I poured two stiff glasses and gave her one of them.
'New Geneva,' I said. It seemed a safe toast to propose.
'New Geneva,' she replied, and we chinked glasses. The malt uisque was smooth and peaty, yet it burned within with a heady fire. That fire spread its warmth through me and I sat back and sighed.
'Have you had a busy day?' she asked, so I told her what I had been doing, trying not to bore here as she must have been bored so many times before by men and women who were so single-mindedly wrapped up in their professions that they could not imagine that any other person might not share their enthusiasms.
'And what about you?' I asked, after going on far too long about my plans for building a shopping centre on the outskirts of Moskva.
Sonya's talk was of receptions and ambassadors, of chief executives and secretaries of societies, of presidents' wives and monarchs' ladies-in-waiting, of the plays she had seen and the concerts she had attended.
'And when all this is over?' I asked. 'Will you return to England; to Oxfordshire?' For I knew that the London Season would not begin until the grouse-shooters returned from the moors of Caledonia in the late autumn.
'Yes, I expect so. My husband will be waiting there for me, if he has got back from the Sumatran Conclave.' Sonya's voice had become slow and weary. I expected she would want to leave soon, and felt vaguely disappointed that our talk had been all business, so to speak. Although it was almost completely dark - only a little amber light seeped out from my room and illuminated the side of her face - I looked away so that my disappointment would not show. I faced the City.
There it lay, covered by a blue-green haze of mist; its own ghost. 'Sonya,' I said. 'Why were you crying last night?'
Her answer to my question surprised me nearly as much as my nerve in asking it. 'How old are you, Peter?'
'Forty-seven,' I replied.
'I am twenty years older than you…' She took a puff of her cigarette.
'I would never have guessed.'
'Silly man! Of course you know how old I am!'
'It looks very well on you.' This was true. Whether it was the effects of the uisque, or the diffused light from my room I cannot say, but her face was very beautiful despite, or perhaps because of, its age.
'Thank you. But, don't you see? I was seventeen years old when the city fell. You weren't even born.'
'Yes, I understand. The Holy War, the Catastrophe… It must have had a tremendous effect on your mind. You were at school at the time, weren't you?'
There was a silence, which I felt I had to fill somehow.
'And you must have heard about it. Your teachers would have told you.' I dredged my memory. 'You had an elder brother, didn't you? Was he at the Fall? Did he tell you about it?'
'Are you sure you should be interrogating me like this, Sir Peter?'
'I'm sorry,' I said, abashed. 'Please forget I asked.'
'It was a fair question. And I will say to you that the reason I was crying wasn't that I heard about the destruction of the City at school. Nor was my brother there. He died in the first days of the War - his ship was torpedoed in the German Ocean.
'You have come here this year, now, because of the Commemoration. You will probably never come here again. I come every year, Peter. Every year. It breaks my heart. Listen…' And as she told me about the days she had spent in Geneva, and what she had seen of the Fire from Heaven, and the blasting of the city and the massacre of its people, I felt my heart break along with hers.
I do not remember when her hand crept, childlike, into mine. I do know that it gripped ever more tightly as she told me her story. When she had finished she let go of it again and stood up. She walked to the edge of the balcony and rested her elbows on the rail, leaning over it and gazing at the dimly-glowing city. I joined her there and took hold of her hand once more.
'Do you feel it too?' I asked. 'Do you feel it drawing you there?'
She turned to face me. 'Yes. Can you doubt it?' We were very close to one another. For one wild, heady moment I thought we might kiss, but it passed.
'I should go now,' she said. 'Tomorrow will be a busy day.'
'Goodnight, Sonya,' I replied and, taking her arm, saw her safely to the door of her room.
'Goodnight, Peter,' she said, and once more that desolate tone coloured her voice with melancholy.
After she went in, I returned to my room and sat on the balcony and let the scent of her cigarette fade away until I heard the clocks strike midnight. I did not hear her door open or close.
- 0 -
Sonya had gone, but the regret, the loss, the despair in her voice remained, infusing me with her grief. I placed a long-distance call to Dunedin.
'Sweetheart? Speak up, the line's awful again.
'Funny you should ask. Yes, I did see her today. No, at a reception.
'It was a long red dress. Velvet or silk or something like that. No, I don't know what shoes she was wearing or where she got them. Yes, I'll take a checklist with me next time, silly girl.
'How did she look? Oh, the usual. You've seen the photos. No, we only spoke for a couple of seconds. Then some awful Texan collared her and that was the last anyone saw of her.
'Oh look, there go the pips again. Keep the AV on tomorrow. It's the Ceremony, remember. You might see me! Bye now.'
I put the 'phone down. I had quieted my wife's worries, but what about my own? For there had been something in Sonya's voice that had filled me with a great fear that I could not, would not, name.
- 0 -
The Ceremony was due to start at eleven o'clock in the morning. At least, that was the case for me, privileged as I was. Many of the people in the standing enclosures had been queuing patiently for several days for their chance to be there. All I had to do was to present myself at the security gate and wait for a few minutes. Round about a quarter to eleven, a uniformed, dog-dæmoned attendant showed me to a comfortable seat in one of the forward tiers, not far from the podium. I introduced myself to my immediate neighbours - the managing director of a large chemicals concern in Doytchland and a regional administrator from Spana - and sat back to look around me. Behind me and to both sides rose bank after bank of wooden benches, thousands of them, full of people. The had been built onto the western ramparts of the City's defences which still rose a hundred and fifty feet into the air. The cracked edges of the remains of the Dome were a mile in front of us. Overhead hovered two dirigibles belonging to the AV broadcast companies, their cameras recording and transmitting the scene to all the countries of the world. In front of me, and equipped with a walkway leading to and from the podium were the seats which had been reserved for the most important guests - royalty, government leaders, chiefs of staff. I expected to spot Lady Sonya there, but she was nowhere to be seen.
At ten fifty-eight the King of Brytain and the Seigneur of Frankland took their seats. Still no Lady Pangborne, even though there was an empty place clearly visible in the row behind the King. Where could she be?
Eleven o'clock came and went. Servants passed up and down the paths leading to the Royal Enclosure with worried expressions on their faces. The King turned in his seat and looked behind him. But there was no sign of Lady Sonya. The worry which had been hovering in my mind all morning (and most of the previous night) came back to me stronger than ever.
Even though the podium and stands had been set up less than a mile from the western edge of the City's broken dome we were, the authorities assured us, perfectly safe. No poisonous particles from the wreckage could possibly reach us. The prevailing wind was westerly and it had been blowing the radiation from the leaking reactors eastwards for the past fifty years. So I was not particularly concerned about it. If the wind changed we would move to an alternative location - that was all.
With the clock standing at five past eleven the Ceremony begun. Lady Sonya was apparently unavoidably detained, but there were thousands of people here - and millions more around the world sitting in front of AV sets - who could not be kept waiting, not even for someone as important as her.
It had been decided that the Archclerc of Suisse should lead off the Ceremony Of Remembrance. This was not so much for reasons of religion - for we live in a largely secular age - but for historical ones. The Church and the Magisterium had been destroyed in the Catastrophe and it seemed fitting that their representatives should take centre stage in its recollection.
The Archclerc rose from his seat. A distant organ played three minor chords. And he sang - just him, no choir, orchestra or other support - a long lament for the fallen city and for the men, women and children who had died in its fall. The sound of his high, clear voice was carried to the highest galleries of the natural amphitheatre in which we sat and from there to the whole world by the microphones and transmitters of the broadcasters. We sat silent, enrapt.
As I listened, the thought came to me, voiced by Gwendoline. It's hard, she said, to mourn a hundred thousand people. How can you do that, when you never knew them? Is there an arithmetic of sorrow? Are ten deaths so much sadder then one?
No. It's the individual people who matter the most, not their numbers, I replied. That's why Sonya and I could never come really close. She lost someone, we didn't. She saw a life ended, we didn't.
But why isn't she here now?
I don't know. I wish I did.
The Archcleric's song ended and there was silence. Even the wind died down, hushed into calm. He spoke a few words of the Litany of Avignon. We knelt and prayed; even those of us who had renounced the Church. There was a power in the air that day to make believers of us all.
Then a choir sang an anthem and we relaxed a little. It would have been impossible to maintain such a level of intensity for very long. Even so, as I looked around I saw tears in many eyes. It is possible that I wept also.
The anthem was followed by an address from the Governor of the League of Nations. The poor man! He was an administrator, not an orator, and his words - which had no doubt been crafted by skilful hands - fell flat and leaden of the air. My attention began to wander and my eyes strayed. Even so, I cannot claim that I was the first who saw her. They were the standees, high on the upper decks of the arena. A flutter of sound drifted down from up there. Those of us in the more important seats at the front probably thought - snobbishly, I know - that the lower classes could hardly be expected to follow or understand the Governor's words, important and significant though they were. The attendants moved discreetly to quiet them.
But the sound didn't stop. Instead, it spread down the ranks of seats as, level by level, what was happening in front of us became progressively more and more visible. And although you might have expected it to start a riot, or at least to create a dangerous disturbance in the crowd, nobody moved from their seats.
It was recorded, filmed, stored on tape and disc. Anyone who wishes can view the AV footage that was shot that day and listen to the awestruck commentary of the announcer. But it is impossible to appreciate its impact on those of us who were actually there. It struck me like a thunderbolt.
Walking slowly, painfully, across the meadows that separated the ramparts of Geneva from its crushed Dome came Lady Pangborne. Even at this distance - for she was still several hundred yards away - I could see that her left leg was giving her trouble. It dragged behind her as she came, step by agonised step, towards us. My heart was banging furiously in my chest. What was she doing? What had happened to her?
The Governor was facing towards us and so he could not see Lady Sonya. He must have thought that the restlessness in the crowd was directed at him as an insult, and he face grew dark and his voice rose until it almost became animated. But although he was now close to shouting out the words of his speech of peace and reconciliation the susurration of the crowd rose louder still and eventually his voice faded and his words petered out. He turned around.
Closer she came, and I could see that her face was horribly red and blotchy and her hair damp with perspiration. The crowd remained utterly still as if hypnotised. Nobody moved, nobody spoke, except to whisper to his neighbour, 'It's Lady Sonya? What's going on? Why's she out there?'
And then Gwendoline spoke to me, in her natural voice. 'Go on, Peter! Help her! Rescue her!'
Scarcely believing what I was doing I got to my feet and vaulted over the seats in front of me onto the grass. A sigh came from the thousands behind me. Gwendoline wrapped herself around my throat and hung on like grim death.
I was a bit of an athlete at school and the Varsity and I had not let myself go to fat as middle age approached. Even so I was not exactly race-fit, and the three hundred yards that separated the stands from the unsteady figure of Lady Sonya seemed endless. As I neared her I slackened my pace. I did not wish to knock her over in my haste. And so I saw first what others only saw later. My disbelief in what I was seeing came first as well, but my acceptance of it followed closely after. For Lady Sonya was not alone. To my astonishment I saw that my help might not be actually be necessary after all. Lady Sonya was supported on her left side by a strange figure - that of a naked man in his sixties, with grey hair and stringy arms and legs. He was struggling to take her weight, which was odd for she had always been tall and slender. I stopped for a moment.
Then Sonya spoke, and her voice was cracked and strained. 'Peter! You came! Oh, I'm so glad. Please - could you help us? We're feeling a little tired this morning.'
I stood frozen, but with a go on! from Gwendoline I pulled myself together and walked the last remaining few yards to where Sonya stood. She toppled into my arms, and as she fell the other man became transparent and disappeared from sight. I put my arm around her shoulders, accidentally catching a strand of her long dark hair. To my horror it came away in my hands, followed by the rest of her locks. They fell in a circle of dusky tresses around her feet.
'Look Alfie!' Sonya said to her mink-dæmon. 'Look!'
'Sonya, I'm so sorry,' I said. She was clinging to me desperately.
'My hair? That doesn't matter. I'm not bothered by that. But I am feeling rather weary. Can we sit down for a moment?'
'Yes, of course.'
'I would like to face towards the City, if I may. I would like to see my people.'
I did not understand what she meant, but I helped her to sit down. We turned and looked back. I know now why nobody else approached us and why I had been the only person to run forward to help Sonya. It was the poison from the City ruins, of course. It was clear that Sonya had been affected by it. You could tell by her flushed complexion and flaking skin; by the blood that was seeping from her joints and especially by the loss of her glorious hair. I am no hero, despite what has been said and written about me since. I had not consciously defied the invisible death that enveloped the city's ruins. It was just because of her. Sonya. One person who might be lost. One person among thousands who had been lost. The Dead.
The Dead were still dead but she, I had thought, might still be saved.
- 0 -
Everything I have written here so far is a matter of record. The films and tapes show it. My vainglorious rush from the stands, Sonya and I holding on to one another, our fall to the ground. You can see the footage of one of the broadcast airships shunting lift from its ballonets and falling from the sky to rescue us. Then there are the 'grams in the newssheets - of Lord Pangborne and Simon Whitchurch entering the hospital where she lay dying, the endless column inches describing the sensational events of the day. One photogram I still have and keep on my mantelpiece; a picture taken from the second dirigible. We are being lifted into the rescuing airship on a platform, still wrapped in each other's arms. My face can't be seen, but hers is turned to the camera. She was always aware of the need to take each photo opportunity as it came. It makes me smile; to think of that.
Her face is full of distress, true, but it is vanquished by an ecstatic joy transcending her pain. She is looking over my shoulder towards the City and her left arm is outstretched in a gesture of farewell.
For what she saw, and what I and everyone who was present that day saw - and what registered on no film, tape or disc - was what she had come to see. It was the reason she had given away her life.
After our last talk on our balcony she must have slipped quietly out of her room and, concealed by the darkness, gone into the City. There she had scrambled over shattered streets and past listing towers looking for them. And when she had found them - in basements and offices, apartments and shops, cafés and bedrooms, she had led them out; to be a testament at the Remembrance.
For what I saw as we sat and looked towards the city were the Dead, following in Sonya's footsteps. They had come in their multitudes to join the living in commemoration and hope. Slowly advancing and then, brushing against and through Sonya and me, they moved inexorably towards the podium and stands, surrounding them, flowing over and past them. Some of them stopped briefly and greeted those whom they had known in life. Most did not, but buoyed by a breathless wind they swept up the ranks and tiers of seats and, in an endless soaring flight, ascended towards the veiled stars above.
And those figures? Each had a resemblance to his mortal form, but they were no longer of earthly flesh. Rather, they were made of restless flecks of golden light, spinning and flowing about them. 'Do you see?' said Sonya as the airship lifted, pulling herself up to the window with superhuman strength. 'Do you see them?'
'Yes,' I replied, gladness and despair mingling in my mind.
'I know them,' she said as she fell back onto the stretcher, exhausted. 'I know them, every one, and they know me. And Peter…'
'They have forgiven me, all of them. I am free.'
And those were the last words Sunny spoke to me. They may have been the last words she ever spoke. By the time I was released from hospital - for I had received a dangerous dose of radiation from the dust on her clothes - she was dead.
- 0 -
I will never return to Geneva. But, from time to time, I drive up the Isis to visit the towns of Goring, Streatley and Pangborne where she grew up and where her family estates still stand. There are memorials to her everywhere - grand edifices of marble or small way-stones marking her passing. I sometimes stop to look at them or place a wild poppy at their feet.
I am proud to do so; for of the hundreds of thousands who died in the Catastrophe I now have one true life to remember. At last, I have someone to mourn.