Episode Two ♦ Surprise

Without curtains on his bedroom windows, the bright light made it difficult for Willem van de Velde to continue sleeping. He always wished he had gone to bed a bit earlier but there was something invigorating about waking up to a glorious new day and he relished the cool air of early morning.

He sat up, planted his feet on the floor, and raised his arms towards the ceiling into an upper body stretch which ended with him standing. Swinging his pelvis to the left and his upraised hands to the right, he moved his hips in a circular motion. He lowered his arms to shoulder level – as if he planned to embrace someone much taller than himself – and twisted his torso to the left and right a few times before he raised his hands towards the ceiling again and bent side to side. A few deep knee bends and toe touches finished off his morning workout.

Through the window he watched his neighbor Avinashika step out of her back door with a mug in hand. Willem waved at her. She returned the friendly greeting then quickly turned away. He never understood if she was embarrassed by his nakedness or just polite.

Willem grabbed a raddled pair of shorts and sweatshirt off the clean pile of clothing. Both had seen better days. He shuffled two paces from studio-cum-bedroom to the bathroom, used the commode but only closed the lid, then continued the three further strides into the room which served as both kitchen and living area. He put some fresh water to boil, rinsed out the tea pot, and spooned in dry leaves from Assam – an expensive luxury for an artist. A long serrated knife coaxed two slices off the pale brown loaf of bread he purchased from a local baker. He spread on a bit of butter – from friends with cows on the edge of town – and topped it off with a couple generous dollops of blackberry jam he made last summer. A quarter teaspoon of sugar (one of those items it was hard to know the origin of) spooned into a ceramic mug thrown and fired at the commune and topped off with piping hot tea. He soaked in the aroma before taking a sip and eating the first slice of bread.

The second slice of bread hung from his mouth as he carried the mug in his right hand and pushed open the screen door with his left. Stepping into a pair of ancient sandals Willem squinted against the full force of the morning sun. He tried to imagine what this neighborhood had been like back before the war: when houses were ordered on streets, streets were made of petrochemicals mixed with gravel, and people traveled in personal vehicles fueled with another form of petrochemical. Back then the building he lived in had been home to just one family. Now a central wall marked his space from the couple on the other side.

Avinashika and Willem gardened the area from Willem’s front door to the cartroad, between their homes, and in back of her house. He strolled down the pathway through the garden to Avinashika’s doorway. “Morning,” he smiled in greeting.

“Another beautiful day,” she returned. “Everything is coming along nicely.”

“Yes, the garden’s doing very well this year. Looks like some peas are ready. Probably can pick some greens, radishes, herbs and make a salad. I can make something with the new potatoes as well.”

“What about the asparagus?”

“You wouldn’t mind if I harvest some? It does look really tempting – nice young asparagus with some fresh chicken.”

“No. Not at all. There will be plenty. There always is.”

“I’m going to the market. Do you need anything?” he offered.

“Let me check. When are you going?”

“Maybe in an hour or so. Luis is coming out for lunch. Would you like to join us?”

“Thanks but I’m actually going over to my sister’s to watch her kids.”

“Well, we’ve got to have dinner before I go.”

“I can’t believe your going to do it – leaving all this. We’ve worked hard to make this garden.”

“But I’m leaving it in your very capable hands and the new couple seems pretty excited about the garden and the house, even if it is small.”

“It’ll be nice to have a newborn around, but I just don’t know how they’ll manage when she starts to grow. Your side just seems so tiny.”

Willem pondered the wisteria flush with blossoms. “I’m really sorry about you and Mike. No chance he’ll come back?”

“No. It’s too important to him that he have kids the old-fashioned way. No techno-babies for him even if we ignore the genetic engineering. He just doesn’t trust that they won’t meddle with the fetus somehow.”

“Come with me. No one has to know. We can find a baby and raise it together.”

Leaning over to kiss him on the cheek she said, “Thank you Willem. I know you mean that. Really, you do, but it just wouldn’t work. I need something a bit more settled and I want a father who…”

“I know, who’ll always be there.”

“You’re a good friend, Willem.”

♦ ♦ ♦

The market was a jumble of stalls and semi-permanent shops in the center of the East Hartfield Free Settlement Area. At its heart were clustered the most successful merchants in the Free Settlement and they helped draw the customers along the corridors past the smaller, more transient sellers of everything from aubergines to wingtips.

Willem walked down the main corridor that roughly separated the grocery sector from the clothing and personal care quadrant carrying his tote filled with produce he knew had been grown within the Free Settlement. He stopped at a stall. “So, how is my favorite purveyor of potions this fine morning?”

“Willem! Is it true? You’re really leaving us?” The middle aged woman with long, luxurious, grey hair removed her reading glasses and emerged from behind the counter. “Who will I get to play Antony?”

So the rumors were true, he would get the part. “I guess you’ll just have to give it to Dionysus. It really isn’t meant for Teuton. And just think what you’ll save on makeup!”

“True, he does rather look the part but I fear he lives the part much too often. You I can keep sober!”

He raised his hand and looked at the gold and silver stars hanging from the ceiling of the booth, “If only the Bard had written about the heroic defeat of Chlodio at Vicus Helena… That is a part I was born to play!” She shared his laughter.

“We’ll miss you, but also wish you best of luck on your great adventure. Give us a hug!”

After hugging goodbye, Willem continued out of the market proper, through the outlying itinerant stalls, and across the tram tracks as passengers alighted.

“Hey! Willem!” came a voice.

Willem turned to see who had called him. He recognized his friend Luis less from his appearance – short-cropped, black hair; clean-shaven face with staid expression; white, cotton dress shirt with pale blue pin-stripes; navy, woolen slacks; and black, leather loafers – but by the way the corporate uniform of the satellite cities made his workaday friend remarkable in a community of farmers, craftspeople, and artists. Willem greeted his friend. “Good to see you! But aren’t you a bit early?”

“It’s 11:54. You said to arrive after noon.”

“Shit. I lost track of time, but that’s easy to do in the market. Always a lot of folks to talk to.”

“No problem.”

“Lunch won’t be ready for a while yet, but I got some nice, fresh chicken for us.”

“Great. Work is quiet now. If anything comes up, I’ll deal with it on the way home.”

They walked together down the expansive concrete path that carried most traffic from the tram station and the market to the northern neighborhoods of the Free Settlement. After a couple minutes of walking the concrete came to an end. From here different paths of various composition branched out like the largest boughs of a great maple tree. Each had a designation like “Primrose Path” or “Red Brick Road.” Willem and Luis took “Sylvan Lane” as it wound through the urban village, under grand old oaks and noble sycamores, past houses both historical and ramshackle, around gardens and intensive farms to another branch, “Marigold Place.”

It was off “Marigold Place” where Willem had found half a house. There was no rent since no one owned land in the free settlements. Residents were squatters, but after De Authoriteit redeveloped the suburbs to the south as a giant industrial park, the populace had to go somewhere. At first the East Hartfield Free Settlement Area was tolerated assuming the inhabitants would relocate to new residential districts – like Roseville – and in time ancient neighborhoods would be revitalized under the new urban model. That was two generations ago.

Luis asked, “Did it rain here last night?”

“No. Actually there was some cloud cover earlier in the evening, but otherwise it was a nice enough night. Bit chilly, I guess.”

“Did you see the comet?”

“Did I see the comet or did I participate in the comet viewing?”

“Either.”

“Well, there is a difference. One is to merely step out your door and look up at the grandeur of the heavens. The other is our version of paying homage to the gods of the state.”

Luis found these discussions with Willem’s pedantic, organic side tedious. “Did you see the comet? It stormed in Roseville. I couldn’t see anything.”

“Why didn’t you just tune it in on your Informateur?”

“That’s not the same thing.” Luis tried to ignore his friend’s sarcasm and disdain.

“No. But the point of the exercise was not to see the comet. Like in Imperial Rome, the point was to participate in the civic ritual. I assume you did that at least.”

The lack of words hung like a broken body from a Roman cross. Knowing to answer he had gone to the comet viewing would launch a diatribe about ‘sheeple following orders’ and answering he had stayed home would trigger a rant about ‘De Authoriteit monitoring our every move,’ Luis entered the minefield. “I went. No one stayed very long. I just walked across the plaza and went back into the station. We couldn’t hear or see anything: the storm was that bad.”

“So you opted for conformity.”

“Of course. I want to keep my job!”

“Do you really believe you would lose your job because you didn’t stand out in the rain for a couple hours?”

“It was not just rain, it was a gale and yet the weather report said it was clear.”

“You still trust that thing.”

“Trust isn’t the word. The Informateur is the only source of news and information.”

“Have you ever thought about talking to other people?”

“I talk to people.”

Having taken the silent train to Roseville, Willem was not convinced.

“My neighbor Toshiro invited me to join some of his friends that night, but I could not find them.”

Willem looked at a house. “Huh, the Salkovitches painted their house again. I’ve never understood their fascination with ugly shades of taupe. How can they repaint each year and still manage to find a new shade of taupe? I used to live for the time they ventured into beige. Heaven forbid they make it to ecru! Oh well, just one of the things I’m going to miss…”

Luis stopped walking. He knew the day would come, but the gravity of the situation made it hard for him to react. He watched as Willem kept walking, turned a corner, and disappeared.

♦ ♦ ♦