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Oct/Nov 2003 fiction

The Arrangement

by Duncan White


Photo-Art by Tara Gilbert-Brever

 

"They want us to take this back across the border. They say it will be easy. No one sees anything anymore."

"I'm not sure. My bags weigh enough as it is."

"Oh, but it's not heavy."

 

We built a fire even though the sun was on our backs making it difficult to read our newspapers. Pearl was tall and wide and she was not impressed with the arrangement.

"They are putting this between us," she said, trying again to sleep.

"No, it's simple. All we do is act the same as what we carry. They will never notice. They won't see a thing."

Leroy and his team were designing the arrangement. The final touches would be breathtaking. A Cyprus tree, wheeled between us, housed a giant indigenous ibis angled so the sun would always catch its bill. It was this eye for detail, unparalleled anywhere, that made Leroy's team the best.

"How far is the border?" Pearl asked, eyes half-closed turning upwards in her head.

"Not far now. Less than ten miles. Although, these are the team's coordinates and they have an unlikely sense of distance."

"We have come this far."

"That's true. No denying that. But how far that is exactly, we may never know."

 

Across the border there was chaos. A violent uprising had divided a once "close and peaceful community," bringing bloodshed and terror to the streets. Homes were ablaze. Women raped. Men murdered. Children given guns.

 

We hired the Azalea suite. Cheaper than Hibiscus across the corridor but more glamourous than Clover four doors down. We could hear moaning through the door of Hydrangea.

"88," Pearl said. "Why bother with door numbers?"

"Perhaps it will help you sleep."

"The numbers?"

"No. Knowing where we are. The quiet. The cool breeze coming through the blinds."

Pearl was desperate to tell me about her dream. I did not want to know. Who cares what you dream, I told her. It does not matter. The war matters. The murdering matters. The biscuit factory is on fire, as is the fireworks reserve. Men are being speared alive. Disembowelled by screaming skyrockets. These things matter.

"But I'll forget," she said.

"Exactly."

There was no more bread. To quench our thirst we sucked moisture from the peeling wallpaper. The pattern was Azaleas in June.

 

Our Mayor is deciding whether or not to dynamite the bridges. The prostitutes in his company nibble his ears and tell him it's a bad idea. How will they get home tonight? He brushes them away. "I'll do it then!" He booms, and tugs the tallest to his lap.

 

The catering staff, running in all directions, handed Pearl the menu. A final draft.

"What are we having tonight?"

"Fishtails and carrot nubs."

"I need a good breakfast if we're to get anywhere today. All I've had to feed off is words, ideas, hypotheses. I feel pale and wretched. I must eat something warm. Something that was once alive."

Security at the border was surprisingly tight considering we did not care where we were. But it seemed to mean a great deal to these other people. It was quiet and hot. We waited in the shade of a broken down beach-buggy, actually a scale model of a stagecoach saloon. The driver was a scale model of a driver. The scale was "actual-size." Pearl sat next to him and stuck her thumb in the air.

"It's good, Leroy," she said. But Leroy's team had moved away.

"That's the problem these days," she complained. No one waits to see what happens. How do people judge their judgements if everybody fails to..."

But I walked off to find the false cactus they told me was a toilet.

 

In the Azalea Suite, Pearl's painting of the view was going very well. There was no paint. She painted with make-up and unwanted food. The food had to be unwanted. "People are starving," she said, smearing old gravy and sausage fat into the form of mountains with her thumb. The view out of the window was unique, but there were no mountains. I sat on the bed and re-tied my shoelaces not thinking it my place to say anything. Pearl's the artist after all.

"This mascara smudge, here," she pointed. "That's the border. It's further than you think."

I nodded. My feet were swollen and smelled horribly. I lay back on the bed enjoying the distinctive smell when room service knocked announcing the potatoes were now extremely poisonous, "you must not eat potato."

"Okay," we said, happy to know something new and arguably useful. When the door closed Pearl hated what she had done.

"I'm going outside," she said.

"I'll come with you."

 

They asked about our nationalities. Our racial origins. Where we thought we were going. We told them we were orphans.

"I love luggage," Pearl was saying, which was awkward considering. I looked at the dusty ground then inspected my fingernails. Then watched a stray dog cross into their country. The guards were looking at us, directly.

"They forecast rain for tomorrow," I told them as if to help.

"Not here," they said. Then they laughed.

We waited. It was not clear if there was a process.

Just before the first guard produced my old bank-statements, the architects on television said they'd never seen anything like it. These were very new things that were still very old. A one-man- band played tinny music as families passed through customs smiling, eating sweets. I would have liked coffee, but instead we danced. The music was very loud and we were, after all, dancers.

"They think they can dance."

"You don't have to dance to be a dancer," Pearl muttered so they couldn't hear.

We walked back. That much was clear. This was not the time.

 

The letter came from over the border three weeks down the road. Everything was fine:

The hottest July on record, they said, which it was, this much is fact. This boy with a radio followed until he was shot. We heard it on his radio. It was hot. The boy didn't die but the bullet was in his leg meaning he couldn't follow after that.

The rest is fuzzy.

There was a cinema.

The beds were very comfortable. Goose-down duvets.

Pearl's kisses were salty and thick.

I was happy.

War lasted afterwards.

We should have listened to the border guards. They looked at us as if they'd known all along how complicated it could be but with the dumb expressions of those who would have failed to tell us even if they'd wanted to.

The arrangement required dancers and dancing, like it required a border and guards.

The Azalea Suite was fun. The looters liked it. Leroy did an exceedingly good job, tell him.

When the ibis returns on Tuesday we'll hang up our taps. Dancers like to dance but there's only so much you can do.

 

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