Born in Cork in 1961, with a degree in Mathematics and Economics from Trinity College Dublin (1982), Alison Hackett is the founder of publishing house, 21st Century Renaissance. In 2017 she published Crabbing and Yours etc Letters printed in Irish and British newspapers 2010—2017. Alison has recently had poems published in Poetry Ireland Review and Dime Show Review (U.S). She continues to write letters to editors with over two hundred published. Her blog has recently been revived on a new platform https://www.21cr.ie/blog
‘How’s it going Sam?’
‘Fine,’ I say, focusing on my hands and my keyboard.
‘He has an awful looking face. How can I make him look good?’ she says. I look at her and grin before he comes blustering out of the office, all irritation, and calls me in to work on some file or other.
The portrait took five weeks. By the end of it a way for us to be together had evolved, with neither of us discussing a plan. She began to come later and later so eventually we would both be leaving at the same time. It was so easy then to walk innocently on the same route or go on the same train. The first time we were alone was when she guided our walk to a street I was unfamiliar with and turned to me, speaking quietly, ‘my room is number eight in the building. Come in fifteen minutes.’ We were so used to operating secretly that I didn’t even slow down as she turned to enter the building. I walked on around the next block, pulled off the identifying hexagonal badge on my coat, went into a store to buy something or other and slowly returned to the building where she lived. I remember so well that first time we were alone together. We sat on her sofa, looking at each other, saying nothing, basking in the luxurious warm sun of privacy. I could stare into her dark brown eyes and thrill at the feel of her eyes on me.
Our relationship was so brief. The next time we were together was at my parents’ house. When I told them that she was from work my mother turned to me raising her eyebrows, but her greeting was friendly and she took my father for a walk, leaving us alone for about an hour. I put on some music, a cello concert composed by Achibo. I still have a clear image of Julia, her head back, her dark hair fanning out on the sofa behind her. She closed her eyes. ‘Achibo. Beautiful. So tragic that he was from the doomed eleven-sided group.’
‘Doomed? Didn’t he die in an accident?’
She opened her eyes and looked hard at me. ‘No, Sam. They were eliminated. Just because they expressed their individuality. For being the very thing they were forced to be from birth. The eleven-sided group was selected for their creative genius but then they decided they were too dangerous, too close to twelve, too free, and they got rid of them all.’
I shook my head, ‘No! You’re wrong. There were too few of them and most of them were unstable. Genetically, I mean. They’re tested at birth…’ my voice had taken on a pleading tone and tailed off. She unglued me. I hated seeing the disappointment in her eyes.
‘Don’t believe it all Sam, all that stuff that we’re told.’ Her voice was forceful and angry. ‘We’re told what to be. It’s all controlled at the birth test. Surely you know that?’
I couldn’t say anything. How had she survived, this woman? I had never heard anyone be so openly heretical. But I was being pulled right in. I was so alive in those moments with her. It felt as if she had to be right, her words had such force, such passion. She reached up and embraced me then and I started my long, deep fall into her world, to a place I never wanted to leave.
Almost a week later we were walking together in the Serga woods, on the outskirts of the city. It had been raining heavily for days; droplets of moisture clung to the pine needles on trees towering over us and a bloated mist shrouded everything. With weather like that we knew we would be the only ones there. I can still remember the mournful sound of drops plopping intermittently to the ground. We walked side-by-side chatting, turning to face each other now and again, wanting more. I had the feeling she could hear everything I was thinking.
‘Do you think there could be another leader Sam? Could things change in our lifetime?’ Our leader was a twelve-sided dodecagon, the highest form we had. If someone was born who had a fifteen or twenty-sided form then they would have had a god-like status, but few of us believed that was possible. Julia was voicing the rumour that there was another twelve-sided one who would rule more benignly than Perat. Her words made me think of an odd man of short stature – I didn’t know his name – who worked in the same building as me. He was balding on top but his wiry sideburns suggested a head of curls in his youth. His bright blue eyes were almost engulfed by fat cheeks. The darting shifting glances he made were disconcerting. Without preamble he would sometimes hiss at me in the queue at the canteen, ‘he will lead one day. He. Will. Lead.’ Each word punctuated. I would look away and say nothing, relieved when he went to sit at another table.
Julia spoke again interrupting my thoughts, ‘we could have more freedom, be allowed to have partners outside our own group.’
‘But the police…’
‘I know, I know. I know what you’re going to say Sam. They have the crime situation so well controlled. And the prisons are virtually empty. They won’t allow any loosening of the system. It suits them that we don’t mix.’ Our security forces were formidable.
The police were from the square group. Naturally strong. Four sides. Building blocks.
‘Julia, you know Perat could never be overthrown. He’s protected.’
She sighed, ‘The elite corps, I know.’ Perat had his own protection in the form of the ruthless Decagon Corps. With their ten-sided form they knew that they were only one step away from leadership. Their military training was severe and they had a reputation for being brutal. I saw them once, surrounding Perat at some function or other, sleek and menacing.
As I was thinking of this Julia stopped and faced me. She opened my coat, unbuttoned hers, slipped her arms around me and leant against my chest. I pushed the hood of her coat back and rested my face onto her hair. It felt warm and humid in so close to her, ‘What are we so scared of Sam?’ her voice was muffled as she spoke into me.
‘Everything.’ I said. It was then that we heard a crackling noise through the trees. We pulled apart and left immediately. We didn’t wait to see if it was human or animal.
We only met privately six times. Once more at her apartment, once at mine and again at my parents. We knew we were endangering them as well, but I think they let us meet because they didn’t want us to risk our own places again, and they knew that I wasn’t going to stop. The last time that we tried to go to Julia’s apartment we were caught. It was inevitable I suppose. I was finding it so hard not to touch some part of her, reach for her hand, sweep her hair back from her cheek, constantly holding myself back; but anyone watching me when I was with her would have known. One of her neighbours blocked us at the building entrance, ‘Who are you?’ she said, her eyes drilling into me, accusation in her tone. I looked at Julia. If I left immediately there was a tiny chance the woman would not report us.
‘Goodbye.’ I said wanting to add something that would give us confidence, but seeing the tears in her eyes my voice caught and I could say no more. I touched her arm and left.
A week later a woman with an ominously gentle voice was sent from central offices to coach me at the Revision Centre. We sat on grey plastic chairs at a Formica topped table. There was an old chair with a broken leg in the corner, upholstered in a faded damask pink, its stuffing vomiting out. She wasn’t a bad sort – the nine-sided counsellors and educators were generally fair-minded – but she was relentless. The coaching involved lots of ‘little talks’ as she called it.
If I was stubborn, and kept answering wrong, I knew the enforcement section would have to discipline me, which I dreaded more than anything. So, I was weak and did what would save me.
‘Look at me Sam.’ I reluctantly meet her pale grey eyes. ‘Which classification are you?’
‘What are your strengths?’
‘Who belongs to the artistic group?’
‘Why can’t they mix with Hexagons?’
‘Because we’ll destroy each other.’
‘Do you believe that Sam?’
‘How would you destroy each other?’
‘I would crush her artistic expression and she would disrupt my organisational abilities.’
‘You don’t sound very sure Sam.’ She continues. ‘What is the ultimate state?’
‘What is the nearest to that?’
‘Dodecagon. Our leader.’
‘Who are the producers?’
‘Because they enjoy repetitive actions and don’t like to take decisions.’ And so it went on and on.
She left after two weeks of ‘chats’, and I was back to normal in the office where everyone seemed to know that I had transgressed. No one spoke to me and all communications were on screen. But that suited me as I had nothing to say. I was trying so hard not to think of anything at all, spending weeks looking at the ground whenever I walked anywhere. It seemed important not to look anyone in the eye. It was only when everyone stopped avoiding me and things returned to normal that I was able to let my thoughts return to Julia.
How I longed to see her and talk to her. Had she been coached? She would have been defiant, braver than me. A chill ran through me when I noticed the blank wall in the Chief Administrator’s office – her portrait of him had not been hung. The Heptagons with their greater freedoms were more likely to be subversive and so ran the greater risk of having to be eliminated. Irrationality was built into their centres. But how that thought seared through me, the thought of Julia gone, snuffed out. I knew that we could never be together, but I had to think of her alive. I let my mind visit that last time in her apartment together, when she showed me that I could paint, something I had not been allowed to do in my training. I dip my fingers into the bursting bright yellow paint and smear it across the canvas. Her hand is on mine, her soft voice reassuring me that it is my creation and it is beautiful. I am there, in that light when I think of Julia, and never in some dark unidentified place in the ground; and earlier today when that man in the canteen came up to me whispering something or other, I looked straight back into his eyes, held his gaze, and nodded.
© 2020 Alison Hackett