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A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

Chapter One

In the middle of Kigali there is a swimming pool surrounded by deckchairs and a score of tables all made of white plastic. And forming a huge L overhanging this patch of blue stands the Hôtel des Mille-Collines, with its habitual clientele of international experts and aid workers, middle-class Rwandans, screwed-up or melancholy expatriates of various origins, and prostitutes. All around the pool and hotel in lascivious disorder lies the part of the city that matters, that makes the decisions, that steals, kills, and lives very nicely, thank you. The French Cultural Centre, the UNICEF offices, the Ministry of Information, the embassies, the president’s palace (recognizable by the tanks on guard), the crafts shops popular with departing visitors where one can unload surplus black market currency, the radio station, the World Bank offices, the archbishop’s palace. Encircling this artificial paradise are the obligatory symbols of decolonization: Constitution Square, Development Avenue, Boulevard of the Republic, Justice Avenue, and an ugly, modern cathedral. Farther down, almost in the underbelly of the city, stands the red brick mass of the Church of the Holy Family, disgorging the poor in their Sunday best into crooked mud lanes bordered by houses made of the same clay. Small red houses -- just far enough away from the swimming pool not to offend the nostrils of the important -- filled with shouting, happy children, with men and women dying of AIDS and malaria, thousands of small households that know nothing of the pool around which others plan their lives and, more importantly, their predictable deaths.

Jackdaws as big as eagles and as numerous as house sparrows caw all around the hotel gardens. They circle in the sky, waiting, like the humans they’re observing, for the cocktail hour. Now is when the beers arrive, while the ravens are alighting on the tall eucalyptus trees around the pool. When the ravens have settled, the buzzards appear and take possession of the topmost branches. Woe betide the lowly jackdaw that fails to respect the hierarchy. Birds behave like humans here.

Precisely as the buzzards are establishing their positions around the pool, precisely then, the French paratroopers on the plastic deckchairs begin putting on Rambo airs. They sniff all the feminine flesh splashing around in the heavily chlorinated water of the pool. Its freshness matters little. There is vulture in these soldiers with their shaven heads, watching and waiting beside a pool that is the centrepiece of a meat stall where the reddest, most lovingly garnished morsels are displayed alongside the flabby and scrawny feminine fare whose only diversion is this waterhole. On Sundays, as on every other day of the week at around five o’clock, a number of carcasses -- some plump, some skeletal -- disturb the surface of the pool, well aware that the “paras,” as the paratroopers are known, are not the least daunted either by cellulite or by skin clinging to bones merely from habit. The women, if they knew what danger stalked them, would drown in anticipation of ecstasy or else get themselves to a nunnery.

This tranquil Sunday, a former minister of justice is warming up energetically on the diving board. He does not realize that his strenuous exercises are eliciting giggles from the two prostitutes from whom he is expecting a sign of recognition or interest before diving into the water. He wants to beguile because he doesn’t want to pay. He hits the water like a disjointed clown. The girls laugh. The paras too.

Around the pool, Québécois and Belgian aid workers vie in loud laughter. The Belgians and Québécois aren’t friends; they don’t work together, even though they are working toward the same goal: ‘development.’ That magic word which dresses up the best and most irrelevant of intentions. The two groups are rivals, always explaining to the locals why their kind of development is better than the others’. The only thing they have in common is the din they make. There ought to be a word for the atmosphere surrounding these Whites who talk, laugh and drink in a way that makes the whole pool know their importance -- no, not even that -- just their vacuous existence. Let’s use the word ‘noisiness’ because there’s certainly noise, but it’s continuous, there’s a permanence to it, a perpetual squawking. In this shy, reticent and often deceptive country, they live in a state of noisiness, like noisy animals. They are also in continuous rut. Noise is their breathing, silence their death, and the asses of Rwandan women their territory of exploration. They are noisy explorers of Third World asses. Only the Germans, when they descend on the hotel in force like a battalion of moralizing accountants, can match the Belgians and Québécois in noisiness.

Important Frenchmen don’t stay at this hotel. They dig themselves in at the Méridien with high-class Rwandans and clean hookers who sip whisky. The hookers at this hotel are rarely clean. They drink Pepsi while waiting to be picked up and offered a local beer, which may get them offered a whisky or a vodka later on. But these women are realists, so today they’ll settle for a Pepsi and a john.

Valcourt, who is also Québécois but has almost forgotten it over the years, observes these things and notes them down, muttering as he does so, sometimes angrily, sometimes with tenderness, but always audibly. For all anyone knows or imagines, he’s writing about them, and everyone wants someone to ask him what he’s writing, and worries about this book he’s been writing since the Project left him more or less high and dry. Sometimes he even pretends to be writing, in order to show he’s alive, watchful and serious like the disillusioned philosopher he claims to be when he runs out of excuses for himself. He’s not writing a book. He writes to put in time between mouthfuls of beer, or to signal that he doesn’t want to be disturbed. Rather like a buzzard on a branch, in fact, Valcourt is waiting for a scrap of life to excite him and make him unfold his wings.

At the end of the terrace, walking slowly and grandly, appears a Rwandan just back from Paris. You can tell, because his sporty outfit is so new its yellows and greens are blinding, even for sunglass-protected eyes. There’s sniggering at a table of expatriates. Admiration at several tables of locals. The Rwandan just back from Paris is afloat on a magic carpet. From the handle of his crocodile attaché case dangle First Class and Hermès labels. In his pocket, along with other prestige labels, he probably has an import licence for some product of secondary necessity, which he will sell at a premium price.

He orders a “verbena-mint” at such volume that three ravens depart the nearest tree. Gentille, who has just completed her social service studies and is interning at the hotel, doesn’t know what a verbena-mint is. Intimidated, she whispers -- so softly she can’t even hear herself -- that there are only two brands of beer, Primus and Mutzig. The Rwandan on his magic carpet is not listening and replies that of course he wants the best, even if it’s more expensive. So Gentille will bring him a Mutzig, which for some is the best and for everyone more expensive. Valcourt scribbles feverishly. He describes the scene with indignation, adding some notes about the outrageousness of African corruption, but he does not stir.

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Falling Backwards

I look across my yard every morning at my parents’ little house. They live fifty feet from me now. I can see their lights go on in the morning and shut off at night. I can see them moving about in the yard when they’re watering plants or cutting wood or when my mother is digging up her flower beds. I watch them and I smile. Sometimes I catch myself wondering what in the world I will do when they are not there anymore. I drink cold water and tell myself to stop being so selfish. I close my eyes tightly and open them again, hoping that my thoughts will be cleared away. They never are completely.
I have fourteen acres of land west of Calgary, not far from where I grew up. Not far from where this story begins. My mother and father met on a blind date in the late fifties, before there were colour TVs and cellphones and CDs and computers and even Spanx, for that matter. My mom’s old friend Freda, who’s now deceased, was determined to set my mother up with her boyfriend’s pal, convincing her that this blind date would be different. Freda told my mom that this guy was funny and smart and had a job, for Pete’s sake! What else could a girl possibly want? Freda didn’t seem to care that my mother kind of already had a boyfriend (though my mother says she never really liked him all that much anyway), and asked what would one little date on a Saturday night hurt anybody? My mother reluctantly agreed to go out with my dad. The rest, as they say . . .
It’s hard to believe that my parents are still together and going strong some fifty-three years later. They have survived things that would have crushed most couples. They persevered where others would have cracked in half. I don’t think I could have done what my mother and father did, and that was to go ever forward with their shoulders back and their jaws set straight and their faith unwavering. Both my parents lasted. They beat the odds. They survived each other, for starters, and that was—and is—no small feat. I don’t know if something was in the water, but not a single one of my friends’ parents divorced either. I thought about that one day and just shook my head. It says a lot about the company I kept and continue to keep all these years later.
My parents are my treasures. They are my secret weapon, my shield, my strength and my faith. Whenever I went off the rails, and that was fairly often as I was figuring out how to be a person, I turned to them for comfort and solace and direction and forgiveness. They were always there for me, always.
I sometimes see my dad standing in the yard. He’s perfectly still and quiet, with his arms resting on his rake, and he’s looking off over the fields. I wonder what he’s thinking about. I wonder if he’s thinking what I am thinking.
I asked him once what it was like getting older, and he told me that he couldn’t feel it and he couldn’t see it in the mirror either. He said he just saw himself the same way he always was. I think about that conversation a lot.
So many things have changed around me, but I still see the same face when I look in the mirror. I know what my dad meant. Living is a process. You plod along and hope you’re on the right road and if you’re not, well, that’s okay too. I know that from experience now.
When I was in my early twenties, I moved out to Vancouver for a few years and managed to get myself into a lot of trouble. Not legal trouble, but emotional and spiritual trouble. I felt so lost and so down and out. I made one mistake after another. I was on some kind of self-destruct mode. Eventually I picked myself up and hosed myself down and ended up, as my mother often says, making something of myself, despite myself. She also says to me, “Thank God you could sing, or who knows where you’d have ended up.” I don’t like to think about that.
Years later I returned to Vancouver for a series of sold-out concerts. It was a giant contrast to the days when I was busking on the streets for a buck or two to buy cigarettes and wine. I couldn’t believe I was there, standing on a beautiful, brightly lit stage, singing my songs for people who had paid to see me. I felt vindicated somehow. I’d survived the stupidity of my youth.
After one of the shows I had the limo driver take me across the Lions Gate Bridge to the North Shore, where I’d gotten myself into so much trouble. I had him drive by my old apartment building on Third Street, where I had lived twenty-five years earlier. It was boarded up, to no one’s surprise—least of all mine. It stood there like a tombstone. The pouring rain added nicely to the movie I was creating in my head. I saw my young self, staggering in drunk through the beat-up front door. I closed my eyes and clearly pictured the old mattress on the floor, the ironing board I used as a kitchen table, my beloved cassette deck. I sat in the car for ten or fifteen minutes with the window down, looking out at the street. The cold rain was spitting at my face.
I won, I thought to myself. I won. I felt a weight lift off my heart. I said a prayer in my head about gratitude and forgiveness, and then I had the driver take me back across the big bridge to my hotel. I lay in my bed that night and thought about how I’d gotten to where I was that day. I fell asleep smiling.

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Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum
also available: Hardcover
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From the Prologue

What is at stake in the argument over quantum mechanics? Why does it matter if our fundamental theory of the natural world is mysterious and paradoxical?

Behind the century-long argument over quantum mechanics is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of reality—a dis­agreement which, unresolved, escalates into an argument about the nature of science.

Two questions underlie the schism.

First off, does the natural world exist independently of our minds? More precisely, does matter have a stable set of properties in and of itself, without regard to our perceptions and knowledge?

Second, can those properties be comprehended and described by us? Can we understand enough about the laws of nature to ex­plain the history of our universe and predict its future?

The answers we give to these two questions have implications for larger questions about the nature and aim of science, and the role of science in the larger human project. These are, indeed, questions about the boundary between reality and fantasy.

People who answer yes to these two questions are called real­ists. Einstein was a realist. I am also a realist. We realists believe that there is a real world out there, whose properties in no way depend on our knowledge or perception of it. This is nature—as it would be, and mostly is, in our absence. We also believe that the world may be understood and described precisely enough to ex­plain how any system in the natural world behaves. 

If you are a realist, you believe that science is the systematic search for that explanation. This is based on a naive notion of truth. Assertions about objects or systems in nature are true to the extent that they correspond to genuine properties of nature.

If you answer no to one or both of these questions, you are an anti-realist.

Most scientists are realists about everyday objects on the human scale. Things we can see, pick up, and throw around have simple and easily comprehended properties. They exist at each moment somewhere in space. When they move, they follow a trajectory, and that trajectory has, relative to someone describing them, a definite speed. They have mass and weight.

When we tell our partner that the red notebook they are look­ing for is on the table, we expect that this is simply true or false, absolutely independent of our knowledge or perception.

The description of matter at this level, from the smallest scales we can see with our eyes up to stars and planets, is called classical physics. It was invented by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. Einstein’s theories of relativity are its crowning achievements.
But it is not easy, or obvious, for us to be realists about matter on the scale of individual atoms. This is because of quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is presently our best theory of nature at the atomic scale. That theory has, as I have alluded to, certain very puz­zling features. It is widely believed that those features preclude real­ism. That is, quantum mechanics requires that we say no to one or both of the two questions I asked above. To the extent that quantum mechanics is the correct description of nature, we are forced to give up realism.

Most physicists are not realists about atoms, radiation, and ele­mentary particles. Their belief, for the most part, does not stem from a desire to reject realism on the basis of radical philosophical positions. Instead, it is because they are convinced quantum me­chanics is correct and they believe, as they have been taught, that quantum mechanics precludes realism.

If it is true that quantum mechanics requires that we give up realism, then, if you are a realist, you must believe that quantum mechanics is false. It may be temporarily successful, but it cannot be the fully correct description of nature at an atomic scale. This led Einstein to reject quantum mechanics as anything more than a temporary expedient.

Einstein and other realists believe that quantum mechanics gives us an incomplete description of nature, which is missing fea­tures necessary for a full understanding of the world. Einstein sometimes imagined that there were “hidden variables” which would complete the description of the world given by quantum theory. He believed that the full description, including those miss­ing features, would be consistent with realism.

Thus, if you are a realist and a physicist, there is one overriding imperative, which is to go beyond quantum mechanics to discover those missing features and use that knowledge to construct a true theory of the atoms. This was Einstein’s unfinished mission, and it is mine.


This all matters because science is under attack in the early twenty- first century. Science is under attack, and with it the belief in a real world in which facts are either true or false. Quite literally, parts of our society appear to be losing their grip on the boundary between reality and fantasy.

Science is under attack from those who find its conclusions in­convenient for their political and business objectives. Climate change should not be a political issue; it is not a matter of ideology, but an issue of national security, and should be treated as such. It is a real problem, which will require evidence- based solutions. Sci­ence is also under attack from religious fundamentalists who insist ancient texts are the teachings of unchanging truths by God.

In my view, there is little reason for conflict between most reli­gions and science. Many religions accept— and even celebrate— science as the way to knowledge about the natural world. Beyond that, there is mystery enough in the existence and meaning of the world, which both science and religion can inspire us to discuss, but neither can resolve.

All that is required is that religions not attack or seek to under­mine those scientific discoveries which are considered to be estab­lished knowledge because they are supported by overwhelming evidence, as judged by those educated sufficiently to evaluate their validity. This is indeed the view of many religious leaders from all faiths. In return, scientists should view these enlightened leaders as allies in the work for a better world.

In addition, science is under attack from a fashion among some humanist academics— who should know better—who hold that science is no more than a social construction that yields only one of an array of equally valid perspectives.

For science to respond clearly and strongly to these challenges, it must itself be uncorrupted by its own practitioners’ mystical yearnings and metaphysical agendas. Individual scientists may be—and, let’s face it, sometimes are—motivated by mystical feelings and metaphysical preconceptions. This doesn’t hurt science as long as the narrow criteria that distinguish hypothesis and hunch from established truth are universally understood and adhered to.

But when fundamental physics itself gets hijacked by an anti- realist philosophy, we are in danger. We risk giving up on the centuries- old project of realism, which is nothing less than the con­tinual adjustment, bit by bit as knowledge progresses, of the bound­ary between our knowledge of reality and the realm of fantasy.

One danger of anti- realism is to the practice of physics itself. Anti- realism lowers our ambition for a totally clear understanding of nature, and hence weakens our standards as to what constitutes an understanding of a physical system.

In the wake of the triumph of anti-realism about the atomic world, we have had to contend with anti- realist speculations about nature on the largest possible scale. A vocal minority of cosmolo­gists proclaims that the universe we see around us is only a bubble in a vast ocean called the multiverse that contains an infinity of other bubbles. And, whereas it is safe to hypothesize that the gal­axies we can see are typical of the rest of our universe, one must regard the other invisible bubbles as governed by diverse and randomly assigned laws, so our universe is far from typical of the whole. This, together with the fact that all, or almost all, of the other bubbles are forever out of range of our observations, means the multiverse hypothesis can never be tested or falsified. This puts this fantasy outside the bounds of science. Nonetheless, this idea is championed by not a few highly regarded physicists and mathematicians.

It would be a mistake to confuse this multiverse fantasy for the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. They are dis­tinct ideas. Nonetheless, they share a magical- realist subversion of the aim of science to explain the world we see around us in terms of only itself. I would suggest that the harm done to clarity about the aim and purpose of science by the enthusiastic proponents of the multiverse would not have been possible had not the majority of physicists uncritically adopted anti- realist versions of quantum physics.

Certainly, quantum mechanics explains many aspects of na­ture, and it does so with supreme elegance. Physicists have devel­oped a very powerful tool kit for explaining diverse phenomena in terms of quantum mechanics, so when you master quantum me­chanics you control a lot about nature. At the same time, physicists are always dancing around the gaping holes that quantum mechan­ics leaves in our understanding of nature. The theory fails to pro­vide a picture of what is going on in individual processes, and it often fails to explain why an experiment turns out one way rather than another.

These gaps and failures matter because they underlie the fact that we have gotten only partway toward solving the central prob­lems in science before seeming to run out of steam. I believe that we have not yet succeeded in unifying quantum theory with grav­ity and spacetime (which is what we mean by quantizing gravity), or in unifying the interactions, because we have been working with an incomplete and incorrect quantum theory.

But I suspect that the implications of building science on incor­rect foundations go further and deeper. The trust in science as a method to resolve disagreements and locate truth is undermined when a radical strand of anti-realism flourishes at the foundations of science. When those who set the standard for what constitutes explanation are seduced by a virulent mysticism, the resulting con­fusion is felt throughout the culture. 

I was privileged to meet a few of the second generation of the founders of twentieth- century physics. One of the most contradic­tory was John Archibald Wheeler. A nuclear theorist and a mystic, he transmitted the legacies of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr to my generation through the stories he told us of his friendships with them. Wheeler was a committed cold warrior who worked on the hydrogen bomb even as he pioneered the study of quantum uni­verses and black holes. He was also a great mentor who counted among his students Richard Feynman, Hugh Everett, and several of the pioneers of quantum gravity. And he might have been my men­tor, had I had better judgment.

A true student of Bohr, Wheeler spoke in riddles and paradoxes. His blackboard was unlike any I’d ever encountered. It had no equations, and only a few elegantly written aphorisms, each set out in a box, distilling a lifetime of seeking the reason why our world is a quantum universe. A typical example was “It from bit.” (Yes, read it again— slowly! Wheeler was an early adopter of the current fashion to regard the world as constituted of information, so that information is more fundamental than what it describes. This is a form of anti- realism we will discuss later.) Here is another: “No phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenom­enon.” Here is the kind of conversation one had with Wheeler: He asked me, “Suppose when you die and go up before Saint Peter for your final, final exam, he asks you just one question: ‘Why the quantum?’ ” (I.e., why do we live in a world described by quantum mechanics?) “What will you say to him?”
Much of my life has been spent searching for a satisfying answer to that question. As I write these pages, I find myself vividly recalling my first encounters with quantum physics. When I was a seventeen- year- old high school dropout, I used to browse the shelves at the University of Cincinnati Physics Library. There I came upon a book with a chapter by Louis de Broglie (we will meet him in chapter 7), who was the first to propose that electrons are waves as well as particles. That chapter introduced his pilot wave theory, which was the first realist formulation of quantum me­chanics. It was in French, a language I read fitfully after two years of high school study, but I recall well my excitement as I under­stood the basics. I still can close my eyes and see a page of the book, displaying the equation that relates wavelength to momentum.

My first actual course in quantum mechanics was the next spring at Hampshire College. That course, taught by Herbert Bernstein, ended with a presentation of the fundamental theorem of John Bell, which, in brief, demonstrates that the quantum world fits uneasily into space. I vividly recall that when I understood the proof of the theorem, I went outside in the warm afternoon and sat on the steps of the college library, stunned. I pulled out a notebook and immediately wrote a poem to a girl I had a crush on, in which I told her that each time we touched there were electrons in our hands which from then on would be entangled with each other. I no longer recall who she was or what she made of my poem, or if I even showed it to her. But my obsession with penetrating the mys­tery of nonlocal entanglement, which began that day, has never left me; nor has my urgency to make better sense of the quantum di­minished over the decades since. In my career, the puzzles of quan­tum physics have been the central mystery to which I’ve returned again and again. I hope in these pages to inspire in you a similar fascination.

Welcome to the quantum world. Feel at home, for it is our world, and it is our good fortune that its mysteries remain for us to solve.

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The Cat's Table

He wasn’t talking . He was looking from the window of the car all the way. Two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath. He could have listened if he wanted to, but he didn’t. For a while, at the section of the road where the river sometimes flooded, he could hear the spray of water at the wheels. They entered the Fort and the car slipped silently past the post office building and the clock tower. At this hour of the night there was barely any traffic in Colombo. They drove out along Reclamation Road, passed St. Anthony’s Church, and after that he saw the last of the food stalls, each lit with a single bulb. Then they entered a vast open space that was the harbour, with only a string of lights in the distance along the pier. He got out and stood by the warmth of the car.
He could hear the stray dogs that lived on the quays barking out of the darkness. Nearly everything around him was invisible, save for what could be seen under the spray of a few sulphur lanterns—watersiders pulling a procession of baggage wagons, some families huddled together. They were all beginning to walk towards the ship.
He was eleven years old that night when, green as he could be about the world, he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life. It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, better lit than any town or village. He went up the gangplank, watching only the path of his feet—nothing ahead of him existed—and continued till he faced the dark harbour and sea. There were outlines of other ships farther out, beginning to turn on lights. He stood alone, smelling everything, then came back through the noise and the crowd to the side that faced land. A yellow glow over the city. Already it felt there was a wall between him and what took place there. Stewards began handing out food and cordials.
He ate several sandwiches, and after that he made his way down to his cabin, undressed, and slipped into the narrow bunk. He’d never slept under a blanket before, save once in Nuwara Eliya. He was wide awake. The cabin was below the level of the waves, so there was no porthole. He found a switch beside the bed and when he pressed it his head and pillow were suddenly lit by a cone of light.
He did not go back up on deck for a last look, or to wave at his relatives who had brought him to the harbour. He could hear singing and imagined the slow and then eager parting of families taking place in the thrilling night air. I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude. Had whoever brought him onto the Oronsay already left? In films people tear themselves away from one another weeping, and the ship separates from land while the departed hold on to those disappearing faces until all distinction is lost.
I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.
He woke up, hearing passengers running along the corridor. So he got back into his clothes and left the cabin. Something was happening. Drunken yells filled the night, shouted down by officials. In the middle of B Deck, sailors were attempting to grab hold of the harbour pilot. Having guided the ship meticulously out of the harbour (there were many routes to be avoided because of submerged wrecks and an earlier breakwater), he had gone on to have too many drinks to celebrate his achievement. Now, apparently, he simply did not wish to leave. Not just yet. Perhaps another hour or two with the ship. But the Oronsay was eager to depart on the stroke of midnight and the pilot’s tug waited at the waterline. The crew had been struggling to force him down the rope ladder, however as there was a danger of his falling to his death, they were now capturing him fishlike in a net, and in this way they lowered him down safely. It seemed to be in no way an embarrassment to the man, but the episode clearly was to the officials of the Orient Line who were on the bridge, furious in their white uniforms. The passengers cheered as the tug broke away. Then there was the sound of the two-stroke and the pilot’s weary singing as the tug disappeared into the night.
What had there been before such a ship in my life? A dugout canoe on a river journey? A launch in Trincomalee harbour? There were always fishing boats on our horizon. But I could never have imagined the grandeur of this castle that was to cross the sea. The longest journeys I had made were car rides to Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains, or the train to Jaffna, which we boarded at seven a.m. and disembarked from in the late afternoon. We made that journey with our egg sandwiches, some thalagulies, a pack of cards, and a small Boy’s Own adventure.
But now it had been arranged I would be travelling to England by ship, and that I would be making the journey alone. No mention was made that this might be an unusual experience or that it could be exciting or dangerous, so I did not approach it with any joy or fear. I was not forewarned that the ship would have seven levels, hold more than six hundred people including a captain, nine cooks, engineers, a veterinarian, and that it would contain a small jail and chlorinated pools that would actually sail with us over two oceans. The departure date was marked casually on the calendar by my aunt, who had notified the school that I would be leaving at the end of the term. The fact of my being at sea for twenty-one days was spoken of as having not much significance, so I was surprised my relatives were even bothering to accompany me to the harbour. I had assumed I would be taking a bus by myself and then change onto another at Borella Junction.
There had been just one attempt to introduce me to the situation of the journey. A lady named Flavia Prins, whose husband knew my uncle, turned out to be making the same journey and was invited to tea one afternoon to meet with me. She would be travelling in First Class but promised to keep an eye on me. I shook her hand carefully, as it was covered with rings and bangles, and she then turned away to continue the conversation I had interrupted. I spent most of the hour listening to a few uncles and counting how many of the trimmed sandwiches they ate. On my last day, I found an empty school examination booklet, a pencil, a pencil sharpener, a traced map of the world, and put them into my small suitcase. I went outside and said good-bye to the generator, and dug up the pieces of the radio I had once taken apart and, being unable to put them back together, had buried under the lawn. I said good-bye to Narayan, and good-bye to Gunepala.
As I got into the car, it was explained to me that after I’d crossed the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, and gone through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, I would arrive one morning on a small pier in England and my mother would meet me there. It was not the magic or the scale of the journey that was of concern to me, but that detail of how my mother could know when exactly I would arrive in that other country.
And if she would be there.
I heard a note being slipped under my door. It assigned me to Table 76 for all my meals. The other bunk had not been slept in. I dressed and went out. I was not used to stairs and climbed them warily.
In the dining room there were nine people at Table 76, and that included two other boys roughly my age.
“We seem to be at the cat’s table,” the woman called Miss Lasqueti said. “We’re in the least privileged place.”
It was clear we were located far from the Captain’s Table, which was at the opposite end of the dining room. One of the two boys at our table was named Ramadhin, and the other was called Cassius. The first was quiet, the other looked scornful, and we ignored one another, although I recognized Cassius. I had gone to the same school, where, even though he was a year older than I was, I knew much about him. He had been notorious and was even expelled for a term. I was sure it was going to take a long time before we spoke. But what was good about our table was that there seemed to be several interesting adults. We had a botanist, and a tailor who owned a shop up in Kandy. Most exciting of all, we had a pianist who cheerfully claimed to have “hit the skids.”
This was Mr. Mazappa. In the evening he played with the ship’s orchestra, and during the afternoons he gave piano lessons. As a result, he had a discount on his passage. After that first meal he entertained Ramadhin and Cassius and me with tales of his life. It was by being in Mr. Mazappa’s company, as he regaled us with confusing and often obscene lyrics from songs he knew, that we three came to accept one another. For we were shy and awkward. Not one of us had made even a gesture of greeting to the other two until Mazappa took us under his wing and advised us to keep our eyes and ears open, that this voyage would be a great education. So by the end of our first day, we discovered we could become curious together.
Another person of interest at the Cat’s Table was Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, who was returning to England after a patch of time in the East. We sought out this large and gentle man often, for he had detailed knowledge about the structure of ships. He had dismantled many famous vessels. Unlike Mr. Mazappa, Mr. Nevil was modest and would speak of these episodes in his past only if you knew how to nudge an incident out of him. If he had not been so modest in the way he responded to our barrage of questions, we would not have believed him, or been so enthralled.
He also had a complete run of the ship, for he was doing safety research for the Orient Line. He introduced us to his cohorts in the engine and furnace rooms, and we watched the activities that took place down there. Compared to First Class, the engine room—at Hades level—churned with unbearable noise and heat. A two-hour walk around the Oronsay with Mr. Nevil clarified all the dangerous and not-so- dangerous possibilities. He told us the lifeboats swaying in mid-air only seemed dangerous, and so, Cassius and Ramadhin and I often climbed into them to have a vantage point for spying on passengers. It had been Miss Lasqueti’s remark about our being “in the least privileged place,” with no social importance, that persuaded us into an accurate belief that we were invisible to officials such as the Purser and the Head Steward, and the Captain.

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Good Citizens Need Not Fear

The first time Smena’s neighbor knocked on her door, she asked to borrow cloves. The woman stood in Smena’s doorway, clutching a canvas sack to her chest. Her diminutive frame barely reached the latch. “I’ll bring the cloves back,” she promised. “You can reuse them up to three times.”

This neighbor, Smena knew, associated with the building’s benchers. The woman never sat with them but did spend a good deal of time standing beside them, cracking sunflower seeds, no doubt gossiping, and Smena would often hear the metallic clang of her laughter through the bedroom window. Smena had placed the woman in her mid-sixties, around Smena’s age, but up close her wet lips and bright caramel eyes made her look younger. Her cropped hair, dyed bright red, reminded Smena of the state-made cherry jam she used to see in stores.

She did not let the neighbor in, but made sure to leave a crack between the door and its frame so as not to shut it in the woman’s face—word got around if you were rude, especially to a bencher or bencher affiliate. Smena rummaged in her kitchen drawers for the cloves, then continued the search in her bathroom cabinet, which contained the kitchen overflow. There, the cloves rattled inside a newspaper pouch; they’d lost their peppery tang.
Smena stepped out of the bathroom and blurted “Oi.” The neighbor was sitting in her kitchen. The woman had taken off her clogs, and a grayish middle toe poked through a hole in one of her socks.

Neighbors rarely visited each other, and if they did, it was to complain about a leak in the ceiling or to spy out who had better wallpaper and why. Smena tossed the pouch of cloves on the table, hoping the woman would take what she’d come for and leave.

“I’m Nika, from fifth,” the neighbor said. “Have a biscuit.” From her canvas sack she produced a small plastic bag, rolled down its rim, and Smena felt a pang of delight: inside were the same cheap biscuits Smena used to buy at the bazaar, the ones that had the shape and consistency of a fifty-kopek coin and had to be soaked in tea to save teeth from breaking. This gesture meant her guest wanted tea, which she, the host, should have offered long ago, upon greeting.

Nika craned her neck for a better view down the corridor. “Say, this a one-room or two-room?” Nika pronounced her words with a dawdling slur that was at odds with her quick movements. Smena wondered if the woman was recovering from a stroke.


“For one person?”

Smena tensed. Anything she said, already she could hear being repeated around the block. “My husband snored.” This was true: Smena had shared the sofa bed with her daughter, in the other room, until the girl had moved in with her fiancé’s family many towns away.

To occupy herself, Smena set the kettle on the stove. When she turned back to the woman, beside the biscuits lay a black plastic sheet. An X-ray scan. Smena recognized it instantly; she had a stack of them in the cupboard beside the refrigerator.

“I hear you make a nice ruble copying vinyl records onto X-rays,” said Nika.

Smena’s brows lifted in mock surprise. “Who told you that?”

“A friendly worm in the ground.”

“The friendly worm is mistaken.”

“I used to own a few bone albums myself, a long time ago,” Nika went on. “Only played them a couple times before they got worn through. Didn’t compare to vinyl, of course, but that’s how you got the real music.” By “real” she meant banned music. American rock ’n’ roll, decadent capitalist filth, the stuff with sex and narcotics. Smena’s specialty. She had begun copying bootlegged albums in the postwar years, when she and her husband were desperate for money and radiographic film was the cheapest, most readily accessible form of plastic. Now, with the national shortage of reel cassettes—the national shortage of everything—Smena was back in business.

“I hear your records are the best,” said Nika. “Can play for days.”

Smena hunched her shoulders in an attempt to make her broad frame appear small, innocuous. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a simple pensioner, just like you.”

“A simple pensioner like me doesn’t have a two-room all to herself.”

Smena detected judgment in Nika’s voice—it was uncouth for a woman, especially one far along in her years, to take up so much space—but also envy.

When the kettle whistle blew, Smena was wary of turning her back to the woman again; she imagined discovering a pile of X-rays, or the woman’s entire family, in the kitchen. She reached a hand behind her hips to turn off the gas, fumbled with the cutlery drawer for a spoon—then stopped. This was the same drawer that contained the lathe for engraving X-rays. Smena used her fingers to pinch tea leaves into cups, and stirred the tea by whirling each cup in a circle.

“I hope you can help me,” said Nika.

“Sugar in your tea?”

“Please. Say, ever got an X-ray done yourself?”

“Everyone has.”

“The radiation alone is enough to kill you, just slower than whatever it is they’re checking for.” Nika paused, as though waiting for Smena to say something. “What were they checking for?”

“A bout of pneumonia, a couple years ago,” said Smena, distracted. She’d remembered the sugar jar lived in the same cupboard as the record player—which was a perfectly mundane object in itself, but not if seen in conjunction with the lathe. “I forgot, I’m out of sugar.”

The two women drank their tea bitter. Smena observed that once, when Nika made to dip her biscuit, she missed the cup, tapped the table instead, noticed the error, and dipped the biscuit into her cup with vigor. Before her guest left, Smena tried to push the X-ray back into her hands, but Nika refused. “I’ll be back with your cloves,” she said from the doorway.

“Keep them.”

“You can reuse them up to three times. I read about it.”

“Keep reusing them, then.”

“Oh, I couldn’t.”

Smena forced a smile. “It’s a gift.”

“I’m the one who should be gifting you gifts, for helping me.”

“I haven’t done anything to help you.”

“But you will,” said Nika. “I can always pick out the good people. Like good watermelons.” She was about to head off at last, then paused and turned to face Smena again. “You said your husband snored. What fixed it?”

“He died.”

Nika winked. “I’m divorced, too. They say our building is cursed.”

Smena closed the door on the woman, to hide her own blush. She shoved the X-ray in the garbage bin under the sink. Her underground business made Smena vulnerable to extortion. If Nika visited again, she might ask for more than cloves.

But the X-ray did not stay in the bin long.

Smena’s worst traits, her mother had once informed her, were her height and her curiosity.

It was the golden hour, the best time of day to inspect new X-rays, when sunbeams shot directly through Smena’s kitchen window, illuminating each feathery detail of the bones. Smena lived on the tenth floor, and the neighboring building was far enough from hers for the X-ray viewings to be conducted in privacy. She secured Nika’s scan onto her window with suction cups.

The profile of a skull shone at her. The architecture of a human head never failed to shock Smena, or make her wonder how such a large bulbous weight balanced on the thin stack of vertebrae.

Smena couldn’t help but feel excitement: a head X-ray did not come her way as often as those of other body parts. And heads were the most popular with the buyers, fetched the most money. A shame she couldn’t use this one. She would not be lured into Nika’s trap.

The small white letters on the bottom right-hand corner of the film, easily overlooked by the untrained eye, read VERONIKA L. GUPKA, TUMOR. Smena noticed a thinning at the base of the skull, a shadow overtaking it from inside. The thing looked contagious, like a curse. She didn’t like the tumor hanging on her window, projecting its tendrils onto her kitchen wall.

She understood then: the woman was dying. Whatever she wanted from Smena stemmed from this fact.

Smena hid the scan, but this time, despite herself, she did not try to dispose of it.

Megadeth’s growls and screams, banned in all fifteen Soviet republics, came from Smena’s cupboard record player—at minimal volume, of course.

“I’m with the Kremlin on this one,” said Milena, Smena’s dealer. “If these are the latest tunes from the West, maybe the place really is rotting.” As usual, Milena stood leaning against the windowsill, ignoring the vacant stool in front of her. She seemed to prefer heights, like a cat, Smena had noticed.

This was their biweekly meeting. Milena brought wads of cash from selling bone albums at subway stations, public squares, and parks, and Smena counted the profit, taking the largest cut for herself. Next, Milena presented her with an array of X-ray scans procured through her job as a polyclinic custodian, and Smena picked out the most desirable designs. Today’s winning selection included a foot that had been subjected to an asphalt roller; a handsome pelvic girdle; a torso with what looked like a prominent colon but was really the spine of a fetus; a child’s hand curled into an obscene gesture.

Smena had recruited Milena because of her proximity to X-rays, but also for her proximity to Smena herself. Milena lived two doors down in a one-room she shared with her poet husband, and Smena didn’t even need to cross her own doorway to coax her neighbor in for a chat. From the first, Smena had known Milena would be perfect for the position; no one would suspect the pale middle-aged woman with drab clothes and uneven bangs of dealing illicit albums. At first Milena had refused, recounting how just last month she’d had to shake off a government lackey who had been trailing her husband, and was not sure she would be able to get rid of another, but after a second round of shots Milena confessed she could use the extra money. She was saving up—what for, she didn’t say.

Seated across the kitchen table from Smena was Larissa, the style hunter who supplied hits from the West. “Megadeth is a deliberate misspelling of the English word ‘megadeath,’ one million deaths by nuclear explosion,” she explained. Unlike Milena, who wore only black like a perpetual mourner, Larissa was a carefully choreographed explosion of color: red-and-yellow checkered dress, tangerine tights, peacock-blue heels (which she hadn’t taken off at the door). She sewed most of her clothes herself, copying styles from British and French magazines, complete with embroidered duplicates of the most prestigious logos. Thirty-one years old, Larissa lived with her mother and two daughters in the suite below Smena’s. From the fights Smena overheard through the heating vent—typical topics raised by the mother: Larissa’s low-paying job at the chemical plant two towns over, Larissa’s expensive tastes, Larissa’s failure to keep a man—Smena had gauged that her downstairs neighbor, like Milena, could not refuse a second income. It had only taken Smena two nights of thumping her floor with a broom handle before an irate Larissa paid her first visit.

Smena closed her eyes, taking in Megadeth’s restless rhythms. She couldn’t understand the lyrics, of course, but the singers’ screams were so wrenching, they seemed to be dredging up bits of Smena’s own soul. She wondered how Megadeth would sound at full volume, the power of the screams unharnessed.

“I think there’s something to this,” she said.

Milena’s and Larissa’s eyes swiveled to her in surprise.

Smena glared at the women in return. “Oh, come off it. I’m old but I’m not obsolete.”

“The group’s aesthetic is contextual. People scream a lot in America,” offered Larissa, adjusting her horn-rimmed lensless glasses. “They have screaming therapy for terminal patients. Very expensive. I read about it. Doctors drop patients off in the middle of the woods and get them to hurl their lungs out. Barbaric, yes, but most come back happier.”

“The last time I made a person scream they didn’t seem any happier,” Milena remarked with a smirk, “and I did it for free.” Smena nodded without comment, assuming Milena was referring to one of her fencing tournaments.

When the meeting ended and Milena left, Smena found herself alone with Larissa as she gathered her effects into a quilted faux-leather purse. Smena leaned across the table toward the woman and stretched her lips over her teeth into a smile. This felt awkward, so she unstretched them. “You’re doing a fine job, Larissa.”

Larissa simply nodded, without deflecting the compliment.
Another of her imports from the West: a lack of modesty.

Smena produced two bills from her pocket. She did not look at the money as she slipped it into Larissa’s breast pocket. She wanted the action of touching money to look easy, as if it was something she did a lot, something she barely noticed anymore. “I hear the bakery by the chemical plant is better than the one around the block. Mind picking up a loaf sometime this week?” she said. And added, “Keep the change.”

A child’s whining cry reached them from the suite below. Larissa gave a weary smile. “I’d be happy to.”

“And a dozen eggs, if you see them.”

“At the bakery?”

Smena slid a few more bills across the table, many more than necessary.

“Brown or white?” asked Larissa.

“White bread, brown eggs.” The pricier options.

Smena had asked Milena to bring potatoes two weeks prior. If Milena and Larissa picked up an item or two of food for her every now and then, with her small appetite she would be fine. She did not want her neighbors to suspect that, combined, they were part of a greater pattern. She hadn’t been to the bazaar in over a year, hadn’t even ventured past her front door. Each time Smena opened the door, she felt the dank air of the outer hallway cling to her skin, as if she were being pulled into a tomb.

Smena’s fears had begun with a newspaper article: a boy had tripped over exposed rebar and broken both wrists. For years, the townspeople had been privately griping about the poor state of roads, sidewalks, bridges, but this was the first time the consequences of decaying infrastructure were publicized. Soon more and more reports came, from all over the country, each more outlandish than the next. A sinkhole trapped a commuter bus. A family of five plummeted to their deaths in an elevator malfunction. A gas leak gently poisoned preschoolers for weeks before being discovered. Pedestrians were advised to avoid underpasses.

Even previously privileged information was released, about how the town had been built on a not-quite-drained marsh that was slowly reliquifying. Smena’s daughter, and her daughter’s university friends, had cheered on the liberation of the press, which was taking place in their respective towns, too. But Smena had felt safer under the maternal hand of censorship.

Smena’s building, her entire town, now felt like a death trap, but she convinced herself that the concrete walls of her own apartment were secure. After a yearlong renovation, none of the windows or doors creaked. The new checkerboard linoleum felt smooth and sturdy under her feet. As long as she stayed in her space, twelve by twelve steps, she would be safe.

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