The tape unspools, spilling The Beach Boys into the small, dark room; a garage probably, connected to a suburban house. Of course, it’s an unwritten policy never to use an actual police cell for this sort of work. The music is tinny, possessed of a treble and dynamic range guaranteed to suffocate the inconvenient noises an interrogation sometimes produces.
Small-Hands leans towards you. You think, perhaps he was chosen to question you because he has a sympathetic face and his superiors have decided you will respond to sympathy.
They’ve hit your face so much now that it’s numb. Something that might have been your nose flops onto your cheek as you turn your head. Inside your body, things grate against each other like powdered seashells and glass.
You are tied to an ancient rattan chair. Your guts are full of splintered wood, and you hug your insides because something deep inside them may burst at any moment. Apart from the overpowering copper smell of your own blood, everything is metal and dirt.
You know these people. You were these people: relics from the 1980s. Trench-coated assholes who transferred from the security services into the Department of Memory as soon as they could. Men with faces both hard and soft. Faces that hide things even from themselves.
You think, in all probability, Small-Hands and his partner, The Other One, wouldn’t have beaten you so much if there was any chance of setting you free. You know how it ends: they shoot you full of morphine and throw you from a helicopter out at sea. There’s even a witty name for it: the submarine. You hit the water to never come up again.
“What did he tell you?”
“Who?” you say.
The Other One hits you.
Small-Hands riffles through a slim, leather-bound notebook. The sort carried by all the memory men. They lurk in cafes and at street corners, hats pulled over their faces, coats belted; sniffing for contraband; scribbling down the recollections of those they observe:
- the expression of the only woman you ever really loved the moment she broke your heart.
- the smell of your childhood backyard, after the rain.
- the satisfaction of flushing your brother’s goldfish down the toilet.
That sort of thing.
No-one really knows how the regime learned to do this. You’ve heard all the stories: a UFO crash off the coast of the Malvinas or a breach in the space-time continuum deep in the Patagonian wilderness. Maldonado, your old partner in the department, swore blind the instructions had been handed directly to the president by La Virgen de Luján. She had emerged from a spaceship just outside Córdoba, saying they were a gift from the Amazon women of Venus.
You pointed out to Maldonado that, of all the theories, this seemed the most unlikely, as it required the president to read.
“He’s got staff,” Maldonado would say with a shrug.
Small-Hands breathes heavily and begins to read your recollections from his notes, licking his lips to punctuate the sentences:
“You met Jorge Luis Carizo, or shall we call him what the papers used to: ‘The man who remembers forwards’? In Cafe Rulfo, near the Recoleta cemetery at 11am. You’d gone for a stroll early, but stopped for a couple of negronis at La Biela.
You looked at your reflection in the cafe window and straightened your tie: a navy sports jacket and thinning, slicked back hair. Enough Campari and you might still be attractive to a lonely boy art-student or gallery-crawling widow with low expectations.
Cafe Rulfo was the same as always. A nicotine yellow ceiling hunched over fake Greco-Roman columns, fake brass candelabra throwing sickly light over its fake-tanned porteño clientele. You spotted Luis almost immediately, leaning back in one of the red studded leather chairs reserved for regulars.
He looked the way he had when you’d last seen him. The wrinkles in his face were so deep he seemed a million years old, but he was only a year your senior. You had never expected to see him again. Until this moment, you had thought he was dead.
Like a ghost, you slipped between customers until reaching his table. He appeared to be expecting you, but then, it’s entirely possible that he was.
‘Forgive me. I can’t quite place you, but I feel like I know you,’ he said, raising his head to present a glassy smile.
Luis’ table was engulfed by hundreds of overlapping napkins carefully arranged to create an enormous paper flower. Each napkin bore one of two markings – a circle or a cross. Most were branded with words that no human tongue would even be capable of pronouncing.
‘What is it?’ you asked, pointing at the scraps of paper bound together by scotch tape and string.
A ball of melted chocolate popped to the top of his glass of warm milk, bobbing there like a shipwreck victim.
‘It’s a map of time,’ he replied in that reedy, lisping voice. From a silver case, Luis produced a cigarette wrapped in liquorice paper, lighting it with a flourish to blow sweet scented smoke in your direction.
‘Why make it here?’ you asked.
‘Many reasons,’ he replied with the air of an Oxford don addressing a slow undergraduate. ‘But mainly it is because they have the best napkins. Do, sit down, dear boy,’ he said, gesturing at the empty seat in front of him.
You sat and ordered another negroni and a coffee. Your drinks arrived. You bolted the coffee and then took your time over the Campari and bitters.
‘My name is Bartélo,’ you said.
He smiled a polite smile of non-recognition.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘We have met before, have we not?’ He extended a long-fingered hand, the tips yellow and stained with black ink. The cuffs of his shirt too, were covered in ribbons of this scrawl. There were notes to purchase milk, buy bread. Names and places had dates and times marked next to them. Many of the dates were in the future.
‘I was a friend of Sibil,’ you replied. Luis didn’t flinch at the mention of his dead wife.
‘One of the peculiarities of my condition,’ he said, ‘is that I don’t recall what has occurred. Rather, I can only call to mind what hasn’t yet happened. It’s all a question of perspective, I think. If we are the sum of our memories, one might say I am reversing gently out of existence. I suppose the most boring part of it is that I know exactly how it will end. It is rather dull, this memory of my own death.’
You stirred your negroni and sipped, grimacing at its bitter taste.
‘I thought you were dead,’ you said.
‘I was, but only for a little while,’ said Luis, stroking the remaining hairs brilliantined to his scalp. ‘And mostly just for tax reasons. I had to, really. I was banned from casinos. Couldn’t make a living. The security services were chasing me constantly. At least my diaries tell me that was why I did it.’
You knew all of this already. He was as blind to his past as the day he had joined the roaming carnival you called home. Back then, Luis had been little more than a boy with an ugly face and an odd ability. Birthed somewhere in the dark of the interior, discarded and then picked up by the travelling circus.
‘I always like to take a constitutional before lunch,’ he said and stood. ‘Would you like to accompany me?’
He wore a blue woollen suit shining with age. Its lapels were too wide and the trousers too long. Despite his age, he looked as though he had been dressed by his mother.
He gently folded and packed his map into his briefcase, then stretched out an arm and threaded it through yours. Swaying, you stepped outside and the damp blanket of summer embraced you, soaking your shirt before you had gone three paces.
Luis led you into the park adjoining the cemetery. It started to rain, but even though he carried a Malacca handled umbrella on the crook of one arm, he left it rolled together. Instead, he used it as an ersatz walking stick, pressing its tip into the asphalt littered with gum and dog-faeces.”
Small-Hands stops reading. You’re drifting off. His partner, the one with the feminine face, cuts a hand across your cheek, flicking you across the room like a bug. You hit the floor and the glass shifts under your ribs. You finger the empty sockets of your gums.
“We’ll tell you when it’s time to go,” he says.
The pain is in every part of you now – a thrumming chord of ache and blood. The Other One returns with a glass of water and places it on the table. Small-Hands begins reading again:
“You and Luis came to the end of the park and entered the Recoleta cemetery. The rain had become heavier and yet he had still not opened his umbrella. This was exactly the sort of place you had avoided since resigning from the department. While Luis was the man who could remember the future, you had other talents that made you valuable.
You paused to find shelter under the leaves of a tree as the warm rain intensified. Luis’ sightless eyes looked into the distance.
‘Can you do an old man a favour?’ He asked.
‘Tell me something precious. To be specific, a beginning. My regret is how my life is full of endings. It is only those endings that I am able to recall. So, tell me, when was it that we met? Tell me the temperature. Were the fuchsias in bloom? Were we very drunk?’
You licked the raindrops from your lips and were about to answer when Luis flicked the cane upwards. He snapped open the umbrella just in time to fend off an unseen shower of pinecones tumbling from the tree. They bounced into puddles on the concrete.
‘We met at university,’ you lied. ‘It was September. Twenty? No, twenty-two years ago. At the end of one of those winters that never seemed to end. The sort where you’re forever shuffling between parasols in the morning and shopfronts during the afternoon downpours.’
You were interrupted by a laugh echoing from the other side of the cemetery wall. Luis took you by the arm and led you past the groups of tourists gathered to visit the tomb of saintly Evita, past the government posters advertising ‘Re-election not Revolution,’, ’Truth and Stability’ and ‘The President is the congress. The congress is the People’.
The regime, so undeniable, had always been an act of supreme faith. The president at its centre held all its contradictory forces in balance by pure force of will. Without him, it would all fly apart like pennies on a spinning top.
And then there were the rumours; the president was sick and with what no-one knew because his hatred of bourgeois experts stretched even to doctors.
The chatter of the dead rose, like the whisper of autumn leaves on paving stones, interrupted your thoughts. You listened for a second before blocking their voices out. It was the usual stuff – muttering gossip, complaints, sudden explosive guffaws. The dead whistled and sighed to one another, griping about those itches they would never scratch.
Luis turned to you, his eyes as blank as moth balls, and nodded as if to say: ‘You can hear them, can’t you?’
You remembered more of your childhood in the pampas. How you would wake up every morning and look at the dawn lurking on the wide horizon. How the spring air always seemed damp and heavy with the promise of storms. How Nestor, the camp vaquero, with his tiny, clipped moustache and long greasy ponytail, shouted at everyone to strike camp and get the tent down because the wind was coming to tear it to pieces.”
Small-Hands throws a glass of water over you. The Other One produces a Buenos Aires telephone directory and beats you with it. This time, they ask no questions.
“It isn’t personal,” says Small-Hands. “This is just what we do.”
He pulls his chair out from under the desk, scrapes it across the dusty floor, rotating it so its back faces you. He sits astride it as though riding a horse and for a second, you think of Nestor galloping across the pampas. He undoes his cuffs, rolls up his sleeves and rests his hands on the back of the chair. His arms are pale.
This man’s forearms should be rippling and brutish, but they’re thin, delicate; the arms of a habitual poetry reader.
“Shall we continue?” he says and consults his notebook, licking his finger to help him locate the page.
“Cigarette,” your voice sounds alien – a gasping wheeze punctuated by the whistles and bubbles of blood and missing teeth.
He gestures toward his jacket lying at the back of the garage and The Other One retrieves it. Small-Hands takes the carton of Gauloises from the breast pocket and taps to eject a cigarette. He places it between your swollen lips and lights it with a match from a Café Rulfo matchbook. He notes your surprise at seeing it.
“Yes,” he says. “We’ve been watching you for a while, my friend.”
He clears his throat and looks down at his notebook again:
“So, while you listened to the dead turning in their graves, scratching their buttocks and repeating the last jokes they ever told, you thought of Sibil and Luis and the carnival.
Until Luis arrived, you and Sibil had been the only children in the camp. Sibil was the daughter of Madame Zouzou, the palm reader. The old woman had taken you under her wing after your parents had died from the smallpox they’d contracted in Brazil.
Nestor had found Luis playing in the dirt outside the camp one morning. He’d picked him up, wrapped him in a blanket and dropped him at Zouzou’s feet, as though he was one of her chickens.
You were sitting in front of Zouzou’s trailer playing with a miniature tin top. It was just a small metal disk with a spindle at its centre, painted in a rainbow of colours and overlaid by a patina of rust. When you spun it, the colours blurred together into a creamy pink, like milk mixed with blood. Simple, yet it made you so happy; filled you with a hope you couldn’t articulate.
You took Luis in all at once. He was short and dark, like a twist of pigweed, rangy and tough. His eyes were shut and the only part of him not covered in dust were the tear tracks beneath his eyes.
You murmured, ‘Hello’.
Luis ignored you, leaning forward to grab the top. You punched him in the ear and then Nestor cuffed both of you and made you shake hands.
Luis rubbed his face and apologised. You turned and ran. As you passed Zouzou’s trailer, you saw Sibil peeking over the curved roof of her caravan, staring straight at him.
When you came back to the camp, the two of them were playing together, burning a train of ants into smouldering smudges with your old magnifying glass. They watched you arrive in silence. He held the glass and she held his hand in hers, steadying it as they selected their victims. You never saw your old tin top again.
Over the next ten years, Sibil and Luis were drawn to each other like opposing magnetic poles. You watched from a distance as he captivated her with his deliberate grace and elliptical speech. He always was a charmer, wasn’t he? Ugly or not.
You caught them together once, behind Zouzou’s trailer. You were fourteen by then and Sibil a year older. You were playing hide and seek. She had decreed that you should hide. You found a place between some rocks and the bank of a nearby stream. You squatted down amongst the pampas grass. The sun burned hot on the back of your neck and the sharp grass dug into your knees and prickled your shins. You waited and waited but no-one came.
Convinced you’d won, you strolled back towards the camp, picking up a dry stick and using it as a blade to cut down the tall stalks in front of you.
You heard a muffled cry. You recognised Sibil’s voice as the root of the gasp and, for a just a second, you thought she was in pain. You called her name but your voice was swallowed by the dead afternoon air. You had stumbled onto an outcrop overlooking Zouzou’s trailer when you saw them.
At first you thought they were fighting, twisted together in mortal combat. You were about to jump down to break them apart, but Sibil’s gasp came again and something about its breathlessness halted you. You dropped to the sun warmed rock, your cheek resting on its rough surface. The leathery leaves of the romero pichi nodded in the breeze as you watched the couple make love.
You were fascinated by her control – how she led Luis in a wordless dance for which she alone knew the steps and music. When they finished, he stood up and buttoned his trousers, stumbling away, lost in something you couldn’t place. Self-loathing? Satisfaction? But Sibil remained on her back in the tough grass, soaking up the sun. She looked proud and unashamed.
You watched them and you wanted that, didn’t you, Bartélo? Hardly breathing, just watching her, you jerked off and came in the dirt.”
Small-Hands lays the notebook down.
“You ran away to the capital after that, just as the Junta took power. According to your file, you could hear them by then. The corpses, I mean. What’s that like, hearing all those dead voices?”
“I avoided it,” you say, “until I joined the department. It felt good to be useful. There weren’t exactly a lot of jobs for people like me.”
Small-Hands nods to The Other One, who places a worn manilla folder on the table. Small-Hands opens it, leafing through the crackling carbon-copied sheets within. He nods approvingly.
“You did a lot of good work for us. Didn’t mind getting your hands dirty back then. Why so bashful now?”
Sibil’s face flickers into the memory conjured by his words. You squint to block out the image of her lifeless blue eyes. You grimace into a smile that is mostly blood and gums. You try to wink, but your eyelid spasms.
“We had other cold readers, but you were the star performer. What did they call you back then? The Corpse Whisperer?” he says.
“The department’s detainees had an unfortunate habit of having accidents. Reading a gunshot victim is tricky,” you reply, your missing teeth turning your S’s into F’s.
“Of course. We could always just do that to you now,” says Small-Hands.
“Risky though,” you reply. “I don’t think the regime has any cold readers left. Running around with all those secrets in our heads. We were very accident prone too.”
Small-Hands looks down at his book and smiles.
“It wasn’t until Luis became famous that you had your chance with her, correct? At the party the President threw in ’82, back when he was only the Commandante Supremo, of course.”
You try not to remember the reception, but memory is both a curse and a privilege:
You recall how Sibil had arrived as tall and straight as the pampas grass. Luis wore the same suit he had been wearing when you met him in the café. Sibil recognised you straight away but said nothing.
Halfway through the party you went out onto the balcony for a cigarette, your heart galloping. The door opened behind you and there she was. She offered you a cigarette, a cheap one. She never did grow out of her prairie tastes.
“Nestor and Luis looked for you, you know. Nestor was never quite the same once you’d gone. He passed the following spring; complications from rheumatic fever,’ she said.
“What’s it like?” you asked her.
“Being married?” she replied, “Or being married to him?”
Sibil looked out at the lights flickering on and off over the town like broken constellations. The guerrillas had launched their own celebration just the day before, hitting a string of substations in the city. She blew out a stream of smoke that rolled into the night.
You were about to reply, but she put a finger to your lips and kissed you. You uncoiled the rope of golden hair around her neck and she pressed you to her and all you could think about was that afternoon when you had watched her and Luis.
You close your eyes and push the memory away. Things untether inside you. Unconsciousness starts to encroach, slipping in around the edge of your vision with its blackened fingers. The thick smoke from the cigarette fills your lungs. You cough.
“Did he find out?” asks Small-Hands.
You shrug and needles prickle in your shoulder blades.
“He must have known though, right?”
You shrug again, ignoring the pain this time.
Small-Hands reads from his notebook:
“Luis folded his umbrella and stood for some minutes, letting the rain fall onto you both. The thin raincoat you wore was soon soaked through.
You wanted to ask him so many questions, but the words wouldn’t come; the cacophony from the necropolis drowned your thoughts. You just stood there, letting the rain trickle down your collar.
‘Well. I must be going now. They will be expecting me back at the nursing home,’ Luis said.
He turned and hugged you. He was insubstantial beneath his suit, not much more than a collection of skin and bones that could be blown away in the wind and the rain. He was as flimsy and frail as the forgotten futures he held within him.
He pulled his suit lapels together and walked away. You watched him recede until he turned up one of the cemetery’s marble lined avenues, disappearing as though he had never been there.
You walked in the opposite direction, glad to be leaving the babble of the cemetery behind. We met you right as you stepped out of the gate. You remembered the smell of the hood we put over your head, bitter like bad breath and almonds. And then we took you here.”
“Thanks for the lift,” you say.
Small-Hands smiles. He puts down the notebook and closes it.
“So how is the president’s health?” you ask.
The Other One hits you and you spill from your chair. Your face radiates agony. You want to stay on the floor. The concrete is cool on your forehead. You taste the dust on your swollen tongue.
“He is fit and healthy. He is the foundation upon which our nation is built,” says Small-Hands, glancing at The Other One. “And he is almost certainly guaranteed to outlive you.”
He drops onto all fours, his face hovering over yours like a sweaty moon.
“What was the last thing Luis said to you?” His tongue protrudes between tiny, neat teeth. It’s the same pink as the lipstick on Sibil’s lips the last time you saw her.
Sitting upright and immobile, she was in a place not very different to where you are now. You knew she was dead as soon as the unreeling spiral of her final thoughts began to trail through your mind like a tickertape.
You had always thought that you would be the one to pay the price for your affair, not her. Never her. She was Luis’ wife after all, and Luis was too useful to the regime with his whispers about the future. He may have even trained agents in the Department of Memory. That was your theory, the one you never shared with Maldonado.
The two agents who had killed Sibil looked at each other like naughty schoolboys when you had arrived on the scene.
“A regrettable accident, Agent Bartélo,” the shorter of the pair said, nodding at her silent face.
“To think she was so close to the boss and helping the guerrillas all along,” said the taller one.
They were bland and pasty-faced, this Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Not much different from the two beating you now, they were too young to grasp the horror of what they were perpetrating. The regime was a project of youthful enthusiasts naive enough to believe in the idea that there was only one truth, only one future. You recognised that yearning for order although it had long left you.
At first you thought the pair were on to you. But then they handed you the file and asked you to listen to her. You were too numb to do anything but comply.
The folder was rough beneath your fingers. The room was soaked in the smell of disinfectant. Your mouth was dry. You tried to avoid the purple weal circling Sibil’s throat. You closed your eyes.
It was always the same, even with her. That feeling of entering someone else’s mind, like dipping your toe into the surf of a beach on a sunny day only to find yourself sucked in by the undertow.
You listened, pushing past the circular trail of images and words heralding her end. A dizzying swirl of panicked stars. People’s final thoughts were always tragically quotidian. A mixture of, “have I left the gas on” and “I should have spent less time in the office.” It never failed to touch you.
There was a lot of Luis in there, of course, but there were other things too. A date and a time. A diagnosis. A headline snatched from a future newspaper and scrawled in Luis’ hand. Whatever it was they had been looking for, she hadn’t told them.
Small-Hands sniffs. He slips a hand into his twill trousers and fingers something. All the memory men have a little token. Something to focus on as they lift the latches on their victim’s innermost thoughts. Slipping in and around like long fingered shadows, to pilfer and riffle, search, sort and classify. Small-Hands closes his eyes. He’s in your head now, trying to see what you had seen in Sibil’s mind.
You close your bloodied fingers into fists. You take the secret and bury it deep. You push further back into the things you found inside Sibil’s head, past her feelings for you: an upended oak tree of lust and pity. Back to the day when you saw them lying in the dirt, fucking like animals.
The heat ripples through her hair and the stones bite into her neck. Luis is already walking away from her, full of shame. But she sees you, Barteló, watches you lurking behind the rock. It’s always disorientating seeing yourself in someone else’s memories. She watches you as she lights a cigarette. The nicotine rushes into still-tingling fingers and toes.
You black out.
Salt air stings your face. You’re cold, wrapped in a sheet. You’re strapped on a metal bench running the length of a darkened fuselage. Your stomach whoops and dives as the helicopter swirls in the sky. Your feet are wrapped in chains. There are blocks of concrete set into their rusting links. The wind whips your hair back and forth.
Small-Hands sits at the rear as the aircraft skitters and jibes in the air like a sick metal dragonfly. He grips a handhold over his head. You can see how white and tight his knuckles are from where you’re sitting.
“It’s not the flying. It’s just being up in these things,” he says to The Other One, dabbing at his mouth with a cotton handkerchief.
Small-Hands gazes out of a porthole. He looks at his watch and pulls out his cigarettes. He nods at The Other One and pulls you onto your feet. You rock inside the aircraft as it winds down nearer the water. They haul the door open.
All at once you hear them. The siren song of the others they’ve drowned here, growing from the seabed with roots of concrete and steel, swaying with the weeds.
“Come on in. The water’s lovely,” says a woman’s voice.
Small-Hands offers you a cigarette. You shake your head. You want to say something, but the last words you will ever say catch in your throat. The grey water scuds below. You breathe in sea-salt and kerosene. Your knees are weak, and you retch and belch drily. You put your hands into your pockets to remind yourself of what nonchalance feels like. Your hand closes on something you didn’t expect.
Then, before you’re ready, The Other One grips you by the shoulders and heaves you out. You are tumbling, gasping and flailing in the ice tipped air.
There are long seconds for you to ponder what it will be like to drown. The water doesn’t force itself into you, you’ve heard. You invite it in when your lungs are burning for air. You open your mouth and breath in the bone aching cold.
It’s safe to remember what Sibil showed you now. Late-stage, asymptomatic dementia. A sketch of the Presidential funeral cortege draped in the blue and gold of the national flag. A nation mourns.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Luis had whispered in your ear as you parted.
You open your hand and you see it, the child’s top he had slipped into your pocket outside Recoleta cemetery. The wind spins it briefly in your hand. A sunbeam catches its rainbow disk and as you hit the water, you smile.
Philip A. Suggars is a British writer with a single yellow eye in the middle of his forehead and a collection of vintage binoculars. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Persistent Visions, Interzone and The Best of British Science Fiction anthology series as well as being performed by Starship Sofa, Far Fetched Fables and Liars’ League. He’s won the Ilkley Short Story award, been runner up for the James White Award and longlisted for the BSFA short story prize. He lives with three hairless primates and an imaginary cat called Schrödinger.