Chapter 16


Perhaps it was because the buildings were no longer so rundown. Perhaps it was because cars were diverted from the pedestrian walkways. Perhaps it was the general atmosphere of festivity generated by the flashing neon lights and holographic posters. Whatever it was we felt much more comfortable walking in the district we were now in, despite it being much more crowded. There were theatres on all sides: old buildings much more ornate in their design than the magnificent tall ones in the financial district, but largely obscured by hoardings, flashing lights and critical acclaim couched in quotation marks and qualified by the name of a national newspaper. "Truly Breathtaking!" "A Magnificent Achievement!" "You need a full box of hankies for this one!" All such praise showered on plays with names like The Butler's Underpants, Venezuela! and The Brothers Karazomov. There were cinemas in similar buildings framed by a necklace of neon with bold letters and enormous posters for films for which this was the 'World Première', or which had already grossed trillions of guineas, or which starred hugely famous people or their close relatives. There were films with titles like The Lion, The Goat and the Wardrobe, Candy's Butt, Death Vomit XVI and Turd Sensation (A Musical Adaptation of the work of De Sade).

There were classical plays, children's cartoons, grand opera, ballet, experimental theatre, pornography, silent movies and musical comedies. The choice was as truly impressive as the prices to actually view any of these productions. Sixty guineas to see a film and nearly two thousand guineas for a seat in the opera house. We could not afford to see any of them. In any case, it was still not midday and most theatres and cinemas hadn't yet opened for business, although the booking offices were invitingly so.

We sat on a bench in a paved square. We had been walking all morning, and Beta was eager to rest the pavement-hardened soles of her bare feet. Cinemas and theatres ringed us on all sides, interspersed with cafés, games arcades, Virtual Reality emporia and shops selling such tourist goods as top hats with I © The City written on them, fluffy toys modelled on Her Maphrodite and postcards featuring the many sights of the City.

"Where do we go now?" wondered Beta. "Wherever it is, I hope we can find something to eat. I'm still very hungry."

I nodded, and looked sadly down at my feet. Our time in the City had not been particularly productive with regard to finding the Truth. I pondered the wisdom of having come somewhere so large and expensive, and especially of having brought Beta along. She had undoubtedly made my time in the City much more pleasant than it might have been otherwise. She was good company and the more I saw of her the more attractive she became. I was losing my self-consciousness of being accompanied by a naked woman - but in the City there was so much variety and weirdness that Beta and I were equally unremarkable. As much so as the lion chatting amiably with a lamb at the entrance to Her Maphrodite's Royal Theatre. Or the goat singing sea shanties, a cap laid down for passers-by to leave money, in front of the statue of a celebrated thespian. Or the flashing holographic image of an ankylosaurus dancing with an eland above a baroque building where a ballet was being performed.

Or, indeed, the sight of a woman striding towards us in a voluminous green and golden dress, a corseted waist, long brown hair pulled up into a massive bun and secured by a massive golden hairpin, and a very revealing cleavage. She was waving her arm enthusiastically and cheerfully. I recognised her as the Actress whom I'd met on the bus to Lambdeth. She greeted us both. I returned her greeting while Beta looked up shyly.

"Golly gosh! Fancy meeting you here! I thought you were visiting Lambdeth and here you are in the City! And with your beautiful girlfriend. Hello, there! What's your name?"

"It's Beta. And I'm not his girlfriend! We're just friends."

"Well, I'm sorry for the misunderstanding. Still I jolly well expect a girl as pretty as you must have an awful lot of boyfriends, mustn't you? There can't be a man in this world who wouldn't find you terribly attractive."

Beta was plainly disconcerted by the Actress's directness. "I don't know about that. Anyway, I don't have a boyfriend. I'm a virgin."

"A virgin!" exclaimed the Actress with genuine astonishment. "I've heard of those. I thought they were virtually extinct."

"Well, I'm one. And I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of!"

The Actress sensed that her manner didn't accord with Beta and frowned. "Whatever you think, Beta dear. Standards of behaviour vary so much, don't they? Anyway, you don't mind if I sit down. These shoes are absolutely killing me!"

She lowered herself on to the bench beside Beta. Her dress bloused out to reveal an assortment of under-dresses, slips, garters and the shoes which had inflicted her with pain. They were brilliant white and very tight with square heels and toes, and adorned with golden buckles.

"So, what do you think of the Election result? Flipping wonderful, isn't it! I was terrified the blooming Blues would win or even the Whites, but, as it is, the Reds have triumphed. A Red Government! No more Coition nonsense. No more of a government noted for noise, sweat and activity, but productive of absolutely no results of any flipping use to anyone. My comrades and I celebrated all night flipping long! Did you two celebrate? Or did you vote for some other party?"

"We didn't vote at all," I admitted, "and although we were out at a night club in the evening we weren't really celebrating anything."

"Is that because you wanted the Whites or the Greens to win? Don't worry, I can accept that not everyone supposes a Red Government is necessarily good - but I tell you: you'll soon realise how much you've been deceived by all the Black, Blue and Illicit propaganda."

"I didn't particularly mind the Red Party winning," Beta elaborated. "They may even be the best choice for me and my Village. But there's so much violence their victory's caused. We witnessed a fight at the night club between supporters of the Black and Illicit Parties. They virtually destroyed the place. They assaulted innocent people, like this penguin we were talking to..."

"I hate the Black Party! And I hate the Illicit Party! They're not political parties either of them. They're nothing more than excuses for thuggery. And heaven help us if they ever gain power! The Black Party would repatriate everyone with a foreign surname. They would exterminate the Cats, the goats and most sheep. They would declare war on all our neighbours. They would ban trades unions, imprison my comrades in the Red Party and probably the Green Party as well, and ban any literature they didn't approve of. Modern art, modern theatre and modern architecture would be totally repressed. All that would be left would be a flipping parody of a Grecian Utopia with slavery, tyranny, warfare and universal intolerance. People like me and probably both of you would be deemed unacceptable and would face the stark choice of a firing squad or deportation. If the bastards were ever that flipping considerate!"

The Actress paused, overwhelmed by her tirade, and scanned the square with a broad grin. "This is home from home to me," she declared. "The bright lights of the theatre and cinema. Such excitement and so much to see."

"Are you performing in a production at the moment?" I asked.

"Indeed, I am," the Actress replied. "I am that most envied of things: an actress who is hardly ever out of work. I have my agent to thank for that, and some astute rôle choices in the past. I can't complain that I am not proud of all the rôles I've played. An actress must compromise to make a living. I may never have been a leading star. My name may not yet be one of those highest in the billings. But my name has been in lights. And it has been on posters in every underground station in the City. I'm currently appearing in The Lion of Naples at the Royal Court Theatre."

"What's that about?" I wondered.

"It's a sixteenth century play set in Naples where everyone plots against everyone else and everyone gets killed in the end. It's a classic of its sort. It's been updated a bit for the modern audience, of course. The violence is more graphic, the sex is more explicit, there is a great deal of nudity and it is staged in modern dress. But I'm told it remains very faithful in spirit to the original. There is an attempt to give it modern relevance by casting the lords and ladies who do most of the killing and plotting as members of the Blue Party, and the clowns are cast as comrades of the Red Party. My own rôle is the Lady Pudenda: a double-crossing, hypocritical member of the aristocracy who is poisoned in the fourth act. You ought to see it."

"I don't think we can afford to," remarked Beta.

The Actress nodded sympathetically. "No, I suppose in all honesty you couldn't. It's a shame really. It's a stirring production and got excellent reviews in Time Off, The New Statesperson and The Lion Hunter's Quarterly Review." She looked around her at all the productions there were on. "It is indeed a shame to be in the cultural heart of the City, and not able to afford to see anything. There's My Pyjama Cord Is Missing, a farce in which there are many hairy bare knees, innumerable improbable coincidences and a starring rôle for Henry the Bisexual Sheep. Then there's the play, The Black Death, a savage attack on the racist, sexist and militaristic policies of the Black Party staged by The Red Flag Theatre Company in which the cast wear cardboard boxes on their head and carry bicycle pumps instead of guns. Or you could see Bedtime Blues, a musical based on Le Recherché de Temps Perdu, noted for its athletic dancing and catchy songs."

"It all sounds fascinating," admitted Beta.

"Or there are the films. The Blood of Uranus, a science fiction film made on a very small budget where the aliens are sheep dressed in black plastic bags and the space ship resembles a fountain pen attached to a firework. Come Dancing, an erotic drama noted for both its sexual explicitness and the incredible skill the cast demonstrate in remembering their lines. Or there's the current film by the famous director, Anthony Schwarzhof, which combines a roller-coaster of non-stop action and special effects with a poignant social message regarding the dreadful state of housing in the City and reflections on nihilism: Nothing Doing! Or perhaps opera or ballet is your taste? There's everything here, and no reason to ever be bored."

"I just don't think we feel up to seeing a play or film," Beta remarked. "We're both very tired. We had to sleep in an alley-way last night and we've been walking all morning."

"Oh! You poor things!" exclaimed the Actress. "I had no jolly idea! You need somewhere to sit and relax. Look! I'll take you to a nearby pub and I'll buy you both a drink. What do you think?"

"You're very kind, but I don't really think..." began Beta.

"Don't make excuses! I insist! I want to prove that not everyone in the City is unwelcoming! Come on, let's go. The Half Man is very congenial."

We were about to respond to the Actress's offer when we were distracted by shouting and yelling from a corner of the square. A group of people, including a few aggressive rams, charged into the square waving banners portraying Chairman President Rupert pursued by baton-wielding police. Some threw sticks and stones at shop windows and cinemas, and pushed into those unwary pedestrians who hadn't already prudently dispersed. Some threw beer cans and stones at the police who protected their faces with their arms and pushed forward as best they could against the onslaught. It was certainly no longer safe to stay where we were.

The Actress sprung up onto her feet. "Come on! Run! It looks jolly dangerous."

As if to underscore her words, a beer can arched through the sky towards us and clattered to the ground just yards away. Beta and I ran with the Actress out of the square, as more and more police and Illicit Party supporters flooded in. Barricades were already being constructed from overturned benches, security fences and motor scooters. A large horse cantered past neighing Rupert's name over and over again.

We dashed down the nearest road along with tourists and others chattering excitedly as they fled. The Actress made certain that we remained within sight of her, which was not at all easy in the general crush. Any humour in the retreat was abruptly shattered by the loud smash of a plate glass window by an excitable ram who was wilfully battering his head into it. Fragments of glass showered in our direction. "Kill the Reds!" "Red Party Out. Out. Out. Rupert In. In. In." came chants and cries from behind.

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