Short fiction and serialised novellas of GJ Fairlamb

Archive for April 2014

Pinwheel 3: John Brings People Together

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July 3rd, 2005

Nakano, Tokyo

I don’t know, Sosuke types. It’s all too much effort.

You spent six months fixing the bugs on my game, comes the reply – his friend Uzu, who lives in Kanto. I know you’re not lazy.

No, he types, switching back from the window where he is coding. Not that. I mean, people. Outside. Girls. That kind of thing. Too much hassle.

Sounds like you’re giving up. Hang in there!

No, he says again. I don’t care any more. Too much effort.

As if in response, there is a knock as his front door. When his mother answers it, he hears a girl’s voice. He freezes.

The girl is talking to his mother in a vaguely foreign accent, though he can’t guess where from. An audible step, and the visitor enters his home. His mind is a military general, screaming at his hands to do damage control. He runs his eyes over his room: figurines, posters, manga, everything colourful, large-eyed, and in its correct place. Nothing perverted on show, though his mother considers all of it shameful. No – wait – his bed –

‘Sosuke,’ his mother calls, ‘you have visitors.’

A second set of steps enters, and Sosuke’s panic doubles. He grabs the dakimakura from the bed and stuffs it, face-down, into the mass of wires behind his computer.

The footsteps approach his bedroom door, and when they are outside, a second voice mutters something, Here, Sosuke’s panic takes a different turn: better, worse? He doesn’t know if he would prefer it if the second visitor was also a girl; nevertheless, it is a male voice which speaks. He thinks the man is speaking English, but it doesn’t sound like the English he has heard on TV.


I’ll be right back, he tells Uzu.

Is something wrong?

He takes off his headphones and feels naked. Pats down his hair. Sweeps two empty soda bottles off his desk. They bounce on either side of the bin.

His visitors do not have the courtesy to knock twice.

He spins round, arms straight, fists on his knees as if he is formally kneeling. At the sight of the visitors, he becomes a statue, nothing but eyes looking out from a solid rock frame.

The girl is black, pretty, wearing deep red lipstick on round lips. Behind her is a skinny guy about Sosuke’s own age, slouching with his hands in his pockets. The pretty girl smiles and shows perfect teeth.

‘Nice to meet you,’ she says, bowing. ‘My name is Grace. Are you Mr Ito?’

Sosuke does not move. He wonders if she is this friendly to everyone. He wonders what she must think of him.

The man behind Grace runs his eyes all around the room like it is a museum curiosity. He shuffles to the side, to Sosuke’s shelves, a fascinated smile teasing at his lips.

‘We have a proposition for you, if you’d like to hear it?’ Grace says.

Sosuke allows himself a stiff nod, before turning his eyes back to the man. He watches him the same way he watched the lunch-hungry macaques when he visited the shrines in Kyoto.

‘This is my employer, John Kaminski,’ Grace says, giving the man an annoyed look. ‘He would like you to work for us, at our headquarters in CERN.’

Sosuke’s eyes snap back to her. He has heard of CERN. But he is not a physicist, and he has no interest in particles or anything similar – at least until they find something that makes faster computers.

‘Me?’ he mumbles.

‘Yes, you,’ Grace says, flashing her smile again. ‘My employer insisted it must be you. We have some very difficult programming changes to make, and he – John!’

John tilts the figurine of Aya from Tenjo Tenge and reveals her white panties. He is silently shaking with laughter.

Sosuke looks at his floor and reminds himself that he is a statue – a burning red-hot statue. Grace launches into an exasperated diatribe in English, and Sosuke can’t help but be enthralled by the cadence of her voice. The man, John Kaminski, replies again. They speak too quickly for Sosuke to understand more than a few basic words.

John’s trousers appear in front of Sosuke’s vision. Sosuke glances up and the man gives him a clumsy bow. He smiles as he speaks:

‘Sorry,’ he says, in an atrocious accent.

He adds something else in English, and Grace is unimpressed as she translates:

‘He says he wishes he could have had things like these. And he asks you to take him up on his offer. We will pay for everything, and in return you…’

She stops and frowns at John. He repeats himself.

‘…you will have an experience that no other human being will have again.’

John nods, and steps back.

‘Please,’ he says.

Sosuke understands the English word.

He looks up to Grace, then away again.

‘I’ve no passport,’ he says, quietly. ‘And I’ve never been out the country. You can find someone better than me.’

‘No,’ Grace says. He is surprised she heard him, let alone understood him. ‘It must be you. And you won’t need a passport. Believe me, he has everything set up already!’

Sosuke does not believe her. The larger part of him wants to reject the offer, and knows he is going to reject the offer, just as he rejects most things. But the would-be hero in him wants to stand up, shout out, and leave.

‘I don’t know,’ he mumbles, mainly to himself. ‘It sounds like a lot of effort.’

Grace sighs and says something to John. After a few words of protest, her employer leaves the room. Sosuke is glad he is gone.

‘Listen,’ Grace says. ‘He is not going to let you say no.’

Anxiety seizes him.


‘I know you probably don’t believe in supernatural things,’ she says, ‘and honestly, I didn’t either, not even God. But John has a power that I can only say is magical: he knows things he shouldn’t know, and sees things he shouldn’t see. He’s seen that he should take you to CERN, and he is not going to let you stay here.’

‘But why me?’ Sosuke says. ‘And what for?’

‘I don’t know. But he has a lot of money, and a lot of power. I know that.’

Sosuke folds his arms and laughs. He’s never been in a fight, but he reckons he could take someone of John’s size on.

‘He can’t make me leave.’

‘He can,’ Grace says. ‘And he will.’

The door opens behind her. John looks exasperated. He says something about going.

Grace nods and steps towards Sosuke. He pushes his chair back until the desk is digging into his shoulder blades.

‘Don’t make a scene,’ Grace says. ‘That will only make things more confusing when you come back.’

‘Come back? You can’t make me go!’

John has pulled a necklace out of his pocket. Simple, bronzed, a spokewheel. He grips the wheel in the palm of one hand, and grabs Grace’s bare arm with the other. He clenches his eyes tight in concentration.

‘We’re going to 2008,’ Grace says. ‘So remember, things will be a little different. Please.’

She holds out her hand.

Sosuke glances again at the books on his shelf, the posters on his wall, and – like a boulder, using all his strength – he pushes his fear aside. Danger, intrigue, and a beautiful sidekick – he must be dreaming. It sounds like the beginning of a real adventure.

He takes her hand.

‘Now,’ Grace says.

A flash, and they are gone.


February 11th, 1931

Ozone Park, New York

John is in a bad mood when he walks down the alleyway behind Sam’s house. Another day dealing with the dregs of his family’s life, another day of worry so potent he feels constantly drunk. He jumps at every little noise in the darkness, and he doesn’t like how his clouded breath obscures his vision.

He is hoping for a little sympathy, a little cheer, a little reassurance from his only remaining friend. Instead, when he comes to the back door, he hears two voices in the kitchen: one is Sam’s easy laugh and smiling tones. The other is deeper, quieter. British.

John throws the door open and walks in. Both the men inside jump like startled cats. Sam puts a hand to his chest and tries to laugh.

‘Jeez, John, you nearly killed me there! Take it easy, would ya? Ha, I coulda sworn that door was locked too…’

John stares at Sam’s visitor, about to demand his name. He opens his mouth, and instead all his outrage and similar feelings drain as if sucked through a straw.

‘This is George,’ Sam says, motioning to the man across the table. ‘He’s just started working for Bert.’

‘Nice to meet you,’ George says, standing up. George is nervous, and failing to hide it. He looks at John like he’s a picture he must memorise. Their handshake lasts barely more than a second.

‘Same – listen, Sam, I need to talk to you.’

‘Hey,’ Sam says, seriously – he has recognised John’s worry for what it is. ‘Sit down. You’ll be fine if you take a minute to relax first.’

John meets his eye, sees his sincerity, his concern – sees that his eyepatch is squint.

He grabs one of the wooden chairs and drops himself down.

‘What you sitting in the kitchen for, anyway?’

‘You know, my family’ve always said it was the heart of the home. I like to honour that,’ Sam says.

‘The beer keeps coldest in here,’ George adds. He passes one to John from the nondescript crate underneath the table. Better to be actual drunk, John thinks, than worried-drunk, and he takes two full-throated glugs.

‘You should hear this guy, John,’ Sam says, gesturing at George again. ‘He talks some crap. He’s trying to get me to sink my wages into Coca-Cola stocks. Trade my rum money for soft money.’

‘I’m just saying, I think it’d be a good idea,’ George says, smirking as if remembering a good joke. ‘Coke, Pepsi, it doesn’t really matter, but you should definitely think about it. I know which ones will make you rich.’

He rubs John the wrong way. Talking like he’s the Queen, then acting poorer than he is, with phrases like “I’m just saying”.

‘He is rich,’ he snaps. ‘You see the boys with no shoes down the Lower East Side – down any place we come from – and you look at this house here and tell us he ain’t rich. You just look at that clean waistcoat you’re wearing, and the job you have, and tell us you ain’t rich.’

‘Easy, John,’ Sam says.

George looks down and taps the side of his washed-out green beer bottle.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t thinking. I’m still quite new here, you understand.’

‘The point is, George, nobody with any sense puts their money in stocks,’ Sam says. ‘You know what makes you money? Rum and gin.’

‘And Bert’s antiques,’ George adds, still looking at his bottle. That same smirk flitters back onto his face.

John notes that Sam does not look so amused. John has wondered, over the past week, why Sam’s eye now looks a shade darker when Bert is mentioned.

‘He can keep them. I’m looking out for myself.’

George takes a swig of the bottle. John catches the grimace he makes, and is pleased to think that this guy can’t handle his moonshine. Such pleasures, though, are fleeting.

‘Sam,’ he says again, in a lower voice. ‘I really need to talk to you.’

‘John –’

‘It’s alright,’ George says, thunking the bottle down and standing up. ‘I should go. Tessa will be worried about me. Should I go out the front?’

Sam shakes his head.

‘Barnardo’ll bark the house down if you do. You’ll be all right round the back, I swear.’

George says goodbye with a final look at John, and then – at last – he is gone.

John gets up, and locks the door behind him. Sam smiles.

‘I don’t even need to ask any more. I’ve trained you.’

Not really, John thinks, but there’s two of us who hate unguarded doors, and one of us who can stand up easy, so it makes sense.

He sits and gulps more booze.

‘What is it?’ Sam asks.

Now it’s come to it, he doesn’t want to say. Doesn’t want to admit a thing.

‘So that guy, is he a thug for Bert or someone like us?’

Sam sits back and looks up at the ceiling. Contemplative, thoughtful, so goddamn calm it makes you sick – John’s never quite decided on the right words for him.

‘Like us. I don’t think he wants everyone hearing what he can do, though.’

‘But you showed him what you can do.’

Sam blinks and feels his eyepatch, readjusting it to the right place.

‘I didn’t see anything – just showed him what it looks like underneath.’

John has never seen what Sam’s bad eye looks like, but he knows better than to say that.

‘Well, you gonna see something for me?’

‘I already looked for you, remember?’ Sam says.

‘No, I mean, you gotta look for how things are gonna turn out for me.’

Sam lifts his head, frowning.

‘If this is about Al, I told you I can help–’

‘No,’ John says. He swallows. Family is family, and look after their own affairs, even if it kills them. If he accepts a cent of Sam’s money, an inch more than the mile of aid Sam has given him, he will die of shame. ‘I want you to just – to see if I’m gonna be okay. That’s…that’s all I want.’

A hint of pity washes over Sam’s expression. Then, he sighs and turns his eyes back to the ceiling.

‘I wish I could,’ he says. ‘Wish I could do that for everyone. But it doesn’t work like that. I asked Bert, and he says he once heard that with this power, you can never see what’s in front of your face – what matters most, I’m thinking. I’ve never seen who did this to me. I’ve never seen what’ll happen to me in the future, or what’ll happen to New York or the country or anything. Just visions of little things for other people.’

He frowns, as if something had just occurred to him.

‘What?’ John asks.

‘Nothing. I was just wondering how Bert knew that.’

‘Well, how does he know any of it?’

‘Yeah,’ Sam says, as if to himself. ‘How does he?’

‘Sam,’ John says, eager to steer the topic back to his misery, ‘none of that means you can’t look for me.’

With a sigh and a struggle, Sam pulls himself straight and leans forward in his chair, facing John like a businessman, elbows on his knees, clasped hands hanging down.

‘I saw what I saw,’ he says. ‘That was the whole of it. I’m not looking again – you and that magnetism gave me a headache the rest of that day.’

John reaches for the bottle. He should’ve known something like this would be in his way.

‘But,’ Sam continues, ‘I did see one thing that might make you feel better.’

He drops his hand.


Sam smiles.

‘I saw you bringing people together. I mean it – I saw you, talking to these people from all over the world, making connections between them like…I don’t know, like a priest or something. And it makes sense – you’re a magnet. You’ll bring people together and change people’s lives. I know it.’

A grin breaks out across John’s face. That means I won’t die until that happens, and it doesn’t sound like that’ll happen for a long time.

‘Make you feel better?’

‘You bet,’ John says. He and Sam clink bottles, and drink until much, much later.


18th September, 1978

Mahdia Town, Qom

‘Have you heard, my beauty?’ Zahra says. She sweeps into the room and cups her daughter’s cheeks. ‘We will have freedom soon – we will have change – we will have revolution!’

She floats away to the window, and her daughter Sholeh laughs and rubs her face, turning back to her books. She starts her pre-university course – the Pish-daneshgahi – in four days, and she plans to dazzle her professors as soon as she starts.

‘Once we are rid of the Shah, the new government must listen to us,’ her mother says, gazing out at the trees and sandstone of the city beyond. ‘The National Plan will be put into action. Just think, Sholeh – in twenty years, when you have children, no-one will think twice about your daughters becoming doctors and politicians! I will not have marched for nothing. God protect me, I will burst from hope.’

She comes back from the window and tries to sit on the divan, but is up two seconds later, unable to stay still. She drifts by Sholeh, glances at the equations on her pages, and instead lifts a lock of her daughter’s long hair and lets it fall through her fingers.

‘Your hair will look neater if you cut it. It will make a better impression, at the entrance exams.’

‘I think knowing the material will make a better impression,’ Sholeh replies. Zahra sighs in the way only a mother can. Then, she is at the window again.

‘I must go to Tehran, as soon as your father returns. Maybe you should come. Maybe you will be a politician. I think you would run the country well.’

Sholeh laughs to herself and wishes she could turn her hearing off. Few thoughts are as unappealing. Besides, there’s nothing she could bring that her mother and women like her don’t already do better.

‘Don’t laugh! You must bake the bread while the oven is hot. Once you have finished university, it will be the perfect time. Oh! Speaking of baking…’

With a few muttered words to herself, she is out of the room. Sholeh is glad for the peace and quiet, even if her mother makes her smile. She works a few problems in peace.

A thump comes from the hallway. She glances up.

‘Mother? Is that you? Have you fallen?’

A mumbled noise. Padded footsteps. The door opens, and a head peeks into the lounge. It is a European-looking man.

He sets his eyes on her and smiles.

‘Miss –’

Sholeh screams and jumps up away from her desk. The man shuts the door quickly behind him.

‘Miss Sholeh, I didn’t mean to –’

‘Who are you?’ she demands, reaching for the nearest heavy item – the brass-based lamp. He puts his hands up, as if calming a lion. His sweat-stained shirt is rolled to the elbows, and he looks sunburnt.

‘Please, calm down,’ he says. ‘My name is John Kaminski. I’m here to help you.’

‘How did you get in? Where’s my mother? Maman!’

‘Hey, hey, shhhhh! You wanna get me killed? I’m here to help your sorry ass!’

Something strange has happened in her mind. He was speaking Farsi, and then he was not, and yet she still understood him. She feels as if the room has tipped an inch sideways..

‘Get out of my house,’ she says, gripping the lamp base with both hands. ‘Get out, and I won’t call the police.’

‘Alright, listen to me,’ he says, dropping his arms. ‘This is 1978, right? I’m from 1931, and I’ve been as far as 2008, and I’m here so I can take you out of this shithole before things go kaput. Understand?’

‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Sholeh says. His words bring out the venom in her. ‘You’re lying. You’re crazy. Get out of my house.’

John rolls his eyes, sighs – and disappears.

Sholeh blinks. She wonders if she has gone insane.

‘Woo,’ comes a voice, as the door opens. It is him again. He is wearing more appropriate attire this time – t-shirt, sandals, baseball cap. ‘I won’t be doing that again. Okay, here – this is your signature, isn’t it?’

He steps towards her and holds out a piece of paper. After considering her options, she puts down the heavy lamp and snatches the paper. The signature at the bottom looks like hers, if a little less tidy.

When she tries to read the rest of the writing, it is as if the room tips two feet up on the other side. She is on a slope, and the world is turning to sand beneath her. Her brain feverishly huddles back, grasping at certainties – the sun outside, the rug beneath her, the proprioception reminding her that she has a whole body.

John snatches back the letter. He looks at it, raises his eyebrows, then tosses it onto the floor. Sholeh glances down.

There is only a blank sheet.

‘You okay?’

She nods, though she has an awful headache.

‘Should be more careful with that kind of thing,’ John says to himself. ‘Anyway, you saw it was your own signature, right? The letter was to you too, but I guess – well, anyway. I went to 1999 to get that.’

Sholeh swallows. She wants to say “I don’t believe you”, but her throat has gone dry and her heart is thumping as if she has had a narrow escape – as if she was in the middle of the road, and barely missed being hit by two buses at once.

‘So listen. You in 1999 is not happy. You gave me an earful of it, after you remembered who I was – I should’ve told you about the revolution, the dissolution of some kinda women’s group, something like that. You’re married with three kids and spend half your life trying to stop your oldest daughter from running away to a better country, and the rest of it wondering what would’ve happened if things had turned out how your mother said. Does that seem right?’

‘You’re crazy,’ she croaks out, less sure this time. She realises he is not sunburnt now, as he was before. Who the crazy one is, she doesn’t know.

‘I’ve got an offer for you,’ he continues. ‘God, or fate, or whatever the hell is in charge of this thing, has directed me to you.’

He gestures to her books on the table.

‘You can do physics, maths, that kind of thing? You’ll be wasted here. Trust me. Things are not gonna be pretty for you ladies after the revolution. But I’ve got a project with other people like you, that’ll really use all of your talents, and really make a difference to the world. But you gotta trust me…if you stay here, as things are now, you’re done for.’

Sholeh backs closer to the wall, shaking her head.

‘You’re lying,’ she says. ‘You’re a hallucination. There’ll be a revolution, and it’ll be good – it’ll be good. I’ll go to university. You’re a stress-dream. I fell asleep and didn’t realise it.’

John groans.

‘Am I gonna have to go back there and get another signature?’

A tremble takes over Sholeh’s body, and her brain begs her not to put herself through that again.

‘Listen – come with me, and if you don’t like it, I’ll put you right back here, okay? I mean,’ he adds with a smirk, ‘if it’s a dream, it doesn’t matter, right?’

She wants to grab the lamp and dash his brains out. She wants to scream for someone to help her. She wants the shudder in her soul to dissipate.

‘What should I do?’ she asks.

He takes a necklace out from his pocket and grips it in his left palm. He holds out his right hand as if asking her to dance.

‘Hold on to me, and you’ll see.’

He will kill her, she thinks, attack her, pin her down and rape her maybe. He’s an insane white man who has invaded her house and come to hurt her. She looks at the floor, and intends to stay still.

The white paper is at her feet. The memory of her signature burns in the back of her eyelids.

Shivering, she grabs his hand.

The floor drops from under her. Her lounge is gone and white space throttles past her, as she falls down and down and down through nothingness. The hand gripping hers is the only connection she has to the corporeal world.

The blaring in her ears slows, and settles to a faint whupping noise, like a slowing turbine engine. Colours blot back into her vision, and her feet set on solid ground.

A few seconds out of focus, and then she blinks. It is night-time, and cold. A ball-shaped building stands before her, windows glowing with light. Near-silhouetted against that are three people: two African-looking women, and an East Asian man. One of the women claps her hands together.

‘Welcome! I’m glad you could come!’

‘You don’t need to talk like that to her, she understands English,’ John says.

They all stare at him.

‘You’re speaking Farsi,’ the woman says.

‘Oh,’ says John.

He looks up at the sky, and Sholeh notes that for a second he looks very afraid.

‘That’s…that’s a new one.’

The other woman says something in English. The translator nods her head.

‘Come on, let’s go.’

‘Wait,’ Sholeh says. ‘I’m not going anywhere until someone tells me where I am, and what happened.’

The woman sighs.

‘You’re at CERN headquarters in Geneva. It’s the 28th of August, 2008. Here’s proof.’

She takes out a small plastic slab from her pocket, and points it towards Sholeh. The screeen lights up. 22.45, Thursday, 28 August, it says along the top. Underneath that is a three-by-three row of dots that mean nothing to her. It doesn’t say the year, but it is clear – just from the sight of this glowing screen technology – that she is no longer in 1978.

She puts her hand to her chest and tells herself to breathe.

‘This can’t be – this can’t –’

‘It is.’

‘I did tell you,’ John says.

Sholeh cannot speak.

The Oriental man says something and the translator laughs.

‘Yes,’ the translator says. ‘We all need some tea and sleep. Let’s go back to the hotel.’

They turn and walk away from the building. John waits for Sholeh, but she doesn’t feel able to move yet.

‘When will I wake up?’ she says.

He gives one bitter laugh.

‘This isn’t a dream, toots. I wish it was. But don’t worry – I guess we’ll all be dreaming soon.’

Stranded and alone, she has no choice but to follow him.

The hotel is past many grey-and-white window-covered buildings. Trees are squeezed into every available space, crowding against the walls as if trying to peer inside. Most of the windows are dark, but some are yet burning bright. They pass a car park filled with shining, round-edged cars, and Sholeh has to restrain herself from stopping and staring at them.

The hotel is grey and glass like the rest. Everything is too clean, sparse, and neutrally-coloured, compared to what she is used to. Sholeh can’t take it any more. She sits on the nearest seat in the foyer and rubs her temples. The others stay standing next to her.

‘Well,’ John says. ‘Looks like we’re all here.’

The translator says something again. The two of them argue for a moment. Sholeh wonders when she should demand to be taken home – she has seen enough, she thinks, this dream is too strange for her, and she would like to be back in her house, forgetting that the future exists.

The other woman – the one with the tight-braided hair – turns and gives her a sympathetic look. She takes a book out of her bag and passes it to her. It is a comic book, with thick black-and-white drawings. Farsi has been written around the English dialogue in the speech bubbles. It is named Persepolis.

‘Fine,’ John says at last. ‘We’ll start over tomorrow. I guess we all gotta sleep.’

He turns and walks to the elevators. Sholeh turns the first page. The drawings entrance her.

‘It’s about the Iranian Revolution,’ the translator says. ‘I think you should read it. I think it might be a better way to learn about what happened.’

‘I was there a few minutes ago,’ Sholeh whispers. Her brain is still struggling to understand what has happened.

‘Let’s get some sleep,’ the woman says: once, twice, three languages.

Sholeh cannot escape, not now John has gone. Again, she must follow as they walk to the elevators.

‘My name is Grace,’ the translator says. ‘This is my sister Onyeka, and this is Sosuke. John’s gathered us all here to work on his project for CERN.’

‘I don’t know what that is,’ Sholeh says.

‘I’m sure he’ll explain everything tomorrow,’ Grace says, with a supportive look.

There’s no point, she wants to say. I’m going to go home tomorrow. I’m going to forget about that letter, and John, and everything here.

Instead of speaking, though, she looks down at the book in her hands.

Hours later, sitting on her sharp-cornered bed, Sholeh lays Persepolis down on her bedside table.

She puts her head in her hands, and cries for her home, her country, and her mother’s hope.


Written by G.J.

18/04/2014 at 2:43 pm