Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Material Without Being Real
    by H.G. Parry

Material Without Being Real
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

"A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about. . . like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Her brother died while she drew him. She wasn't sure when. The drawing had taken an hour or so, and she had been absorbed. She had traced the outline of his sleeping face, shading in the hollows of his cheekbones and the curve of his eyelashes. He had fine curls that fell over a high forehead, and she sketched them in lightly, darkening them near the hairline. It was only when she put it aside that she noticed he was no longer breathing. When she had started, she had been drawing a warm, living face. By the time she had finished, she had been drawing a corpse. Two very different things. And yet they looked the same on paper.

The worst of it was, the picture wasn't even very good.

The garden party was in full swing when she went downstairs. Edith had heard the sounds of it wafting in through the half-open window as she sat drawing her brother: strains of laughter, bursts of music, the sound of a tennis ball hitting a racket. It had seemed a long way away. Up close, it was a swirl of colour and glitz and movement, and she felt conspicuous in her white cotton dress as she threaded her way towards her mother.

"Jamie's dead," she told her mother as she helped herself to a cocktail. She thought she saw her mother's face--flushed with gaiety and the sun overhead--falter a little before her smile came.

"Oh dear. Poor boy. Put that back, Edith--you're far too young."

Edith obeyed without protest. She was too young--she was twelve--but at times like this she felt very old, older and wiser than the women who clustered around her mother. And yet she felt young too, in the way her limbs in the hot sunshine pulsed with life and her heart seemed to throb with possibilities. Being young meant possibilities now, she thought, and had since the end of the war two years ago. It had nothing to do with not drinking.

"Influenza, you were saying earlier, Sue?" Mrs Mansfield said sympathetically. "The Bakers lost their daughter to that last month--and their sons both dead in the war, too. And your boy came through the war so nicely."

"He did get shot once," Edith informed Mrs Mansfield. "In the arm. We thought they might send him home, but he mended awfully fast. May I have a cake, Mummy?"

"Oh, do, darling. We'll never finish them on our own. I don't know what your father was thinking."

Edith took a cream puff. When she bit it, the cream oozed out the sides and on to her fingers.

A shrill laugh rose above the rest of the noise, and turned their heads. Edith's second cousin Margaret was doubled over at something one of her friends had said. Her laugh sounded false.

"I suppose he will come back?" her mother said hesitantly, with a little laugh of her own. She sounded almost embarrassed.

"Of course he will, Mummy," Edith said with a sigh, putting the last of her cream puff in her mouth. "Everyone does."

"I'm not used to it yet," she confided. "But of course he will. I'd better tell your father--do excuse me, Mrs Mansfield."

Edith licked the cream off her knuckles, delicately. She still held her drawing in one hand.

James came down about an hour later. His curls were tousled, and there were still lines around his eyes where his illness had marked them. But he was smiling, and his eyes were bright with boyish good humour. There was colour in his cheeks again.

"Oh, Jamie, darling!" Edith's mother exclaimed cheerfully. "I was so worried, even though I was told how silly that was. How are you?"

"Fit for anything," he said, crossing the lawn to give her a swift one-armed hug. "I thought I heard a party out here!"

He seemed to notice Edith for the first time, and winked at her.

"All right, old girl?" he asked, as he had a scant few hours ago when she had come to take her turn at his bedside. His voice had been weak and cracked then; now it was the way she remembered it.

"Rather," Edith returned, trying to hit the careless tone of the girls clustered about the garden in their party frocks. She couldn't explain the sudden uneasiness that had crept upon her at her brother's reappearance. It wasn't that he had been dead; couldn't be. Half her friends' brothers were returned servicemen, or returned from the flu epidemic that seemed to have been going on forever. It was nothing to be unnerved by. It was how it happened now--had been for three years. Old people, like her mother, found it unsettling, of course. But she shouldn't.

"Fancy a dance?" James was saying to her. "I'm stiff as anything after all that time in bed. How long was it?"

"Three weeks," Edith said. "Then you died."

"Edith!" her mother warned, with a quick anxious glance at James.

"I'd love to dance," Edith said.

It caused a sensation when James swept her out on to the lawn where the band was playing and the young couples were dancing boisterously. Rumours swept across the party and stirred it up before the truth that James had indeed returned, not merely recovered, settled like sediment at the bottom of a river bed. Edith enjoyed the reflected glory, and she always loved dancing with her brother, who was so grown-up and good-looking. But despite the sunlight, as she sat watching him dance with Margaret and then with her friend, she couldn't shake the coldness at the pit of her stomach.

It was strange having James back at the dinner table. Edith had forgotten what it was like to have him there in the four years after he had signed up despite his age and gone away to war, and in the last few weeks of his illness she had almost forgotten again. It was very like his first day back after armistice: Her father gruff and pleased, her mother delighted and fussing, James slightly embarrassed, herself slightly shy.

"You'll have to take better care of yourself now, darling!" her mother said to him as she tried to put more potatoes on his plate. "You can't come back again."

"Do they really know that yet?" Edith asked.

"Mm," her father said. "Chap died up in Surrey who was on his second life. There was that one in Hull, too, but he shot himself in the head, so it wasn't conclusive. Only one return, and only when the brain isn't physically damaged."

"Thank you for your concern, old thing," James said to their mother with a lop-sided smile, "but I don't think I'm about to die from a lack of root vegetables."

Edith snorted into her green beans.

She had forgotten her unease, until James excused himself from the table early. "I'm going out in an hour or so," he said. "Ginger's having a bit of a gathering, and he coerced cousin Margaret into giving me a ride there--God help me."

"Tonight?" their mother said, surprised. "Are you sure you shouldn't rest?"

"Oh, don't fuss," he complained, but affectionately. "I haven't seen the fellows in weeks, remember."

"I suppose I can't stop you," she sighed complacently. "Don't be out too late."

Edith couldn't work out what was unusual about this: James was always out somewhere. But somehow, as she gave a quick wave goodbye, she couldn't repress a shiver.

"I suppose he is James?" she said to her mother as the door closed behind him. She tried to make it sound off-hand, almost as though it could be a joke.

"Of course he is!" her mother said. She sounded surprised. "Who else would he be?"

"I don't know," Edith admitted.

"I should think not! You're usually the first to tell me there's nothing odd about the returnees. I was never quite sure, I'll admit, but that's certainly your brother."

"Your brother all over," her father said dryly. "Never still for a minute." He paused. "Still. Good to have him back."

Edith didn't say anything more. Because it was, of course.

She lay awake in her bed that night. It was too hot to close the curtains, and yet with them open the full moon flooded through her window and drowned her sleep. Her picture of James, drawn only that afternoon, was lying on her desk; she hadn't yet had the chance to show it to him. Maybe she wouldn't, she thought as she twisted over on her side to look at it. It didn't look quite right. She'd made his curls too obvious, and his nose too classical. James's nose was actually a little too big--everyone said so.

Edith closed her eyes and counted to a hundred, then sat up with a huff. It wasn't working. She had never felt more wide awake in her life.

Outside, the air was fresh and the grass cool under her bare feet. She wandered across the lawn, large and empty without the crush of people from that afternoon, and made her way to the swing that hung from the old oak tree. Her father had strung it there for her and James, back in that dim misty time when they had both been children together before the War. Edith sat on it now, swung back and forth without much interest, then let herself drop to the grass in front of it.

She told herself that she wasn't waiting for James. She never had before. But when she heard the motor-car roar up the driveway and the sound of voices wishing each other good-night, she knew that she was.

He came around the side of the house a moment after the noise of the engine had failed, and started a little to see her sitting motionless at the foot of the tree; she must, she thought, seem a streak of white in the darkness.

"All right, old girl?" he asked as he drew near.

Edith nodded. "I couldn't sleep. The moon was so silver."

"It changes the world, doesn't it?" he said. He lowered himself onto the swing behind her, so that he was just out of her field of vision. She could feel his knee against her back as he rocked gently back and forth. "All that moonlight. It's the same place, but it's different."

"Yes. Did you have a good night?"

"Oh, good enough." He sounded distracted.

"Was Margaret ghastly?"

"As a ghast," he confirmed, a little more playfully. "And she drives like a lunatic. But Ginger and the fellows are a decent crowd, and there's a friend of mine staying out at her place, so I'll have to put up with her." He yawned, and the swing swayed as he stretched. "I'm all in now, though. I don't think I'm quite. . . you know. Quite back yet."

Edith felt the chill again, the one that she knew had nothing to do with the cold or the moon.

"Don't tell Mother," he added. "She'd never let me out again."

"I won't," Edith said. She twisted her head back to look at him. "Jamie?"


"What was it like to die?"

"I haven't quite sorted that out in my head yet," he said, without apparent uneasiness. "Ask me again in a day or two?"

"All right," she agreed.

She knew now what was wrong. He was keeping something from her. And the real James-- she thought it before she could stop herself--never kept anything from anyone.

The next few days, the sun rose and set in burning heat. Edith tried to watch James, to look for signs of anything amiss, but the sheer weight of the heat made her languid. Besides, he was scarcely there. Now he was well, he seemed always to be off to town to do what their father called "gadding about," or down to their cousins' property where the friend of his was staying.

"He'd better watch himself there," her father said. "George won't like him being there."

Uncle George was Margaret's father. He was not a blood relative; his wife was Mother's sister. "Why not?" she asked. "Because Jamie's returned?"

"No," her father said, with a snort. "Don't imagine he gives a brass farthing about that. No, there's some bad blood between him and your mother, or your grandfather. Old feud. Words exchanged. Dust shaken off boots. That sort of thing. You never wondered why he doesn't visit?"

Edith had not. But it made her wonder, now, why Jamie was so determined to visit his friend out there.

On Saturday, Jamie stayed home. He took Edith swimming in the creek that crossed their property, and for a while she was able to forget her unease in one of the shrieking, splashing waterfights she remembered from her childhood. She watched him afterwards as he lay drowsing on the scorched grass. His face looked much like it had as she'd drawn him, but not the same: less pale, less gaunt, less luminous. His hands were behind his head, and she could see the white scar on his forearm where the bullet had sliced him through.


"Mm?" he asked, without opening his eyes.

"Who is your friend staying at the cousins'?"

"Oh," he said. "A chap from the War. We were together at Amiens."

"Oh." She scratched a mosquito bite on her ankle. "Did he return?"

His eyes opened then, and he turned his head to look at her with a frown. "Why do you ask?"

Edith shrugged. "No reason."

"Certainly not. He came through fine."

It was worse than if he'd said yes. She didn't believe him. "That's good."

They lapsed back into silence. The sun had begun to dry the creek water from her skin, leaving it crusted with flakes of dirt and dried leaves.

"The Bakers all returned, didn't they?" Edith asked.

"That's right," James said lazily. "Frank was killed in Egypt somewhere, I think, and Gerald died of typhus. Their sister died last month of the flu."

"You went out to see them last night, didn't you?"


"Did your friend go too?"

He frowned again. "What's that?"

"Your friend staying with the cousins. I was awake last night, and I thought I heard the cousins' motor drop you back here."

"Oh. . . Yes, he did, as a matter of fact. We all crossed paths with each other at some point."

"Oh. Only I thought--"

"Oh, leave it, Edith, won't you?" James snapped suddenly. "Do you never stop sticking your nose in?"

Edith sat back, as shocked as if he'd hit her. She was used to being told off for talking too much, but not by James. Not for asking about the returned servicemen, not for questioning why he would be spending so much time in their company. In that moment, she saw something entirely different looking out his eyes.

Sure enough, too late, his anger evaporated in a sigh and was replaced with concern as he sat up. "I'm sorry, old girl. That was awful of me."

"It's all right," she said stiffly. "I was asking too many questions."

"You were, but I shouldn't have blown up at you. I haven't been quite right lately--it must be the weather, or something. I haven't really upset you that much, have I?"

Edith shook her head. Her eyes were stinging, which must have been what he'd noticed, but it wasn't because of what he had said.

She was frightened.

That night, as she lay in bed, she heard the sound of the motor car on the driveway once again. She covered her ears and curled underneath the blankets, away from the picture on her desk and the world outside that was too new and had such strange things in it.

James was out all the next day; she saw him only briefly at breakfast, when he tried to ruffle her hair playfully on the way out of the house and she flinched away. His touch made her skin crawl now.

"Are you quite well, Edith?" her mother asked her once during that long day. "You don't look like yourself."

The phrase made Edith laugh. "I'm all right, Mother," she said. "Just making my mind up to something."

"Oh dear," her mother said lightly. "It sounds painful."

It was.

Edith didn't lie in bed that night; as soon as the last of the lights were out, she slipped quietly down the stairs and out the door. It was colder out than it had been, or fear was chilling her. Her feet when she sat on the porch steps and wrapped them in her hands felt like ice.

She didn't quite know what she was afraid of. The sudden flash of something strange in her brother's eyes, she thought, but she wasn't exactly afraid that the thing James had become would hurt her. It was nothing so concrete as that. She thought, perhaps, it was the knowing. She was afraid of seeing James pull up in the company of a hollow-cheeked returned soldier, and knowing that he had become something unreal. She was afraid of what they could be planning, and what was happening to the world.

And yet, for all that, she wanted that knowledge. She was curious.

"It's not fair," she whispered to nobody, and wasn't sure what she meant.

At midnight the motor car pulled up, the lights flooding the porch but leaving Edith's corner in shadow. Fighting apprehension and pins and needles, Edith slowly uncurled and got to her feet. She made her way stiffly across the porch to the driveway.

It was the cousins' motor all right, sleek red and open-topped and searing the air with petrol fumes. James was there too. Somebody else was driving. But it wasn't a strange man, returned or otherwise.

It was Margaret. Ghastly cousin Margaret, her beautifully coiffed hair crammed under a leather driving cap and goggles. James was outside the motor car, on the passenger side, where he'd clearly just closed the door and leaned forward. Margaret had leaned forward too, across the passenger seat. The two of them were kissing. Not just kissing, either, the way she saw playful couples do at parties. They were kissing with all their hearts and souls and bodies, James's free hand cupping her head and tilting it up the meet his and Margaret's eyes closed.

Edith caught her breath; a tiny sound, but the two figures broke apart and whirled to face her. It was almost funny, how horrified and conscience-stricken they suddenly looked. Under other circumstances, Edith would have felt powerful.

Instead, she heard her voice sounding small and frightened and confused. "James?"

"Edith--" he started to say.

She shook her head. "How could you? James would never--"

"Edith," Margaret said quickly, and consolingly. "It was never about keeping it from you or your parents, really it wasn't, it was my father--"

"Get away from me!" Edith screamed. Not at Margaret, but at James, who had pulled away from the car and was starting towards her. Her heart was pounding. "You're not my brother, I know you're not. My brother died. You're some thing living his body, and I don't want you near me!"

James stopped. Inside the house, a light went on.

"Jamie," Margaret said softly. "Your parents are going to come down."

"Go home, I'll explain things to her," James said, without taking his eyes from Edith. They looked very dark. "I'll come clean to the parents too, if I have to. We've only a month left to wait."

She nodded. Her perfectly-lipsticked mouth was tight. "Please call me later."

"I will," he promised, and Margaret pulled her goggles on and the motor roared away in a scree of pebbles.

More lights were going on now, and the front door was opening. Their mother appeared, hugging a dressing gown to herself.

"Jamie? Edith?" she asked, sleepily concerned. "What in the world--?"

"Ask him!" Edith ordered, and fled around the side of the house.

The garden was still and cool. The swing under the oak looked like a picture. Edith flung herself onto it, the way she always had when she was angry, in the old world before everything changed. She didn't swing, but sat there, fuming.

She supposed she should be frightened, and she was. Inside, she could feel her stomach squirming and her heart throbbing. But anger was roaring in her ears, and drowning it out. She wasn't even sure who she was angry at. She thought of Margaret and James kissing, of the motor car roaring down the roads, of the crush and noise of town the last time she had gone, of the large noisy parties on their quiet lawn and the blare of music. She thought of the thousands of returned men and women walking among it all. It seemed to close in around her house and its swing and its creek flowing gently in the sun, and it was all wrong. She wanted to scream.

She didn't sit for long. Almost immediately, the thing in James's body came around the side of the house after her; at a run at first, then slowing immediately as he saw her. Edith jumped to her feet defensively as he drew close.

"It's not what you think," James said, without preamble. He looked very tall and very grown-up in his dark blue suit, and very different from her brother who had thrown her in the creek. "We're engaged."

"Jamie would never marry Margaret!" Edith insisted. "He didn't like her! He said--"

"A lot of rubbish, because he was playing a part," the thing that looked like James finished wearily. "Playing it a sight too well, I think, as everyone seems to be doing these days. Edith, Margaret and I have been engaged since before the war. We wrote to each other whenever we could for four years. She came out to me twice--once in Paris, when I was on leave, and once in Germany, when I took that bullet. Her father's against it because of that idiotic feud, so we've being keeping it quiet until she turns twenty-one. It feels like we've been waiting all our lives."

Edith stopped suddenly, the certainty curdling in her stomach. Because Margaret had gone out to Europe twice during the war, and once she had mentioned running into James. They could well have been writing. They could well, she realised, have been in love.

"It was always her you were going out to see," she said slowly. She wasn't sure if she was relieved or not. "Wasn't it?"

"Yes," he said. "It was. That's why you kept hearing that blasted motor car."

Unbidden, a memory came back to her of the day when James had died: Margaret, at the party, laughing loudly at the chatter of her friends as the band played and sun shone. And yet, the entire afternoon, she had not moved from under Jamie's window. Not until James himself had come down, and danced with her.

"But you're quite right, old girl," James added. "I'm not the same James that died."

Her thoughts were so focused on Margaret that it took a moment for that to penetrate. She blinked. "What?"

"You're quite right. I am, I'm almost sure, a thing living in his body. I never thought of it quite that way before, until you said it. But it's true."

Edith stared at him. She'd been saying it, she knew. But somehow, she had never expected to hear it from him--had never, she realised now, actually believed it. She felt sick, almost without any corresponding emotions, and found herself sitting down heavily on the swing behind her. It swayed so she nearly missed it and fell to the ground.

The thing that looked like James was watching her with concern. "Edith?"

She took a moment to find her voice. "What are you?" she whispered.

James sighed and sat down himself, on the grass with his back to the tree. He looked very tired. "Honestly, Edith, I don't quite know," he said. "It's still filtering through. I remember lying in bed on that last day, feeling pretty awful, and finally getting off to sleep. When I woke, I believed that I was James, returned from the dead. I am, in a way. It was only later that the knowledge of what else I was started to come, like details of a dream. I didn't want to know. They scared me."

"What sort of details?"

"Sometimes just flashes," he said. "Those are a bit strange, because I think they're flashes of my own body. Lungs like vast pink bags, the muscular walls of a heart, clear blood and nerve endings. The brain. I think I was swimming through it all in a thousand fragments. A virus, maybe, going through and reanimating and becoming conscious along the way. Other thoughts are deeper and come from somewhere else. I talked to Gerald Baker about them--not a lot, but in passing--and I'm sure he gets them too. Those thoughts tell me that there're more of us--hundreds, thousands more--floating in the sky somewhere, out where you can't see them. Back a few years, when the dead began to return, was when they arrived. The War and all the chaos around made it attractive for them, I think. And they breed by taking the bodies of the dead. Not just here--there are other worlds, you know. I've glimpsed a few of them, in those thoughts. We don't really have our own lives, or our own bodies. We take over other people's, when they're finished with them."

Edith swallowed. "Where's James, then?" she made herself ask.

"I could be James, you know. Baker has no problem with the notion. He claims he never believed in life beyond the body, so as long as his body's up and running again, he considers himself up and running too, with maybe something extra in his blood. The way people carry around malaria after a bout." He paused. "I rather wish I could think so too, but I think I am the malaria. I think James left, and I'm his copy. But I don't know where he went, old girl. I don't know if he went anywhere. He slipped somewhere beyond the veil of the world, that afternoon, and I suppose one day we'll all find out where that leads."

"Please stop being so calm about it," she said, without quite knowing why.

"I'm not. I haven't been. As sick as you would feel finding it out about yourself, that's how sick I've been feeling these past few days. But I don't have a choice about what I am. It's only live or die, and I want to live--I want very much to live. I want very much to live this life."

Strangely, that echoed in her, the yearning in his voice. It was the feeling that made her heart ache sometimes. For some reason, she finally felt her panic still. "So do I," she said.

He nodded, as if he understood perfectly.

"I knew you were different," Edith said. "I knew James."

"No," he said. "You knew because you didn't. I'm exactly the same as the real James, in every way. It's the image you have of him in your head that's different."

"I loved him," she said.

"Not enough to need him to be alive," he said. He said it without reproach. "The others do. If not him, then someone else they love. They want them to be alive so much that they don't mind that it's not really true. Margaret does that. I could feel her doing it every time I touched her, at first. She's at ease with it now, and she does it without even knowing."

Edith said nothing.

"Some of us do it, too," he said. "We want to pretend things are the same. I don't know why I want to know the truth--whether that's James, or some part of me that's not him."

"I want to know the truth," she said.

"I think we all will, in the end," he said. "I think as time goes by, we'll pretend less and less, and one day it will all be open. One day we'll find ourselves in the new world, without being quite aware of actually getting there. We're in it now, really. But it's not something you can know all at once."

"I never knew James," Edith said. Something painful and important was happening in her chest, though her eyes were dry. "I was only six when the War began, and he went away. I remember bits of everything before, but it doesn't seem real. I grew up with khaki on the streets and air-raid sirens in the air and Jamie far away, and when he came back he was an adult I didn't know. I loved him more than just about anyone, but you're right. I didn't need him to be alive. To me, he was already dead."

"Yes," he agreed, with just a hint of a sigh. He shifted against the tree. "You're not quite real to me either, Edith. You were a little scrap of a thing in curls and stockings when I said good-bye to you. I suppose we both need to get to know each other, don't we?"

"But not James," she said. Her throat ached suddenly, and all at once her eyes were full. "Not my brother who died. I'll never really know him. I was right there, and I never even saw him go."

"He was glad you were there," James said. "He felt better, knowing you were right there with him. He might not have known you very well, but he thought you were just smashing."

"Did he?" she asked.

"Yes," said James. "I do."

He reached out his hand to her, spontaneously, and after a second's hesitation, she took it. His fingers were solid and warm against hers, and very real.

Edith went back to her room. The moonlight was spilling through the window, and the picture on her desk was luminous in a pool of silver.

It was coming, the new world. Margaret and James would marry, motor cars would line the streets; one day, the creek would be built over, the swing would rot and fall down, and it would all be at their door. The dead would live their lives alongside the living and all questions would be, if not answered, then asked. One day. Edith knew that now, without quite knowing what it was she knew. She wasn't afraid anymore.

But just for one moment, the moment between the death of one certainty and the birth of another, she let tears come to her eyes as she grieved for the old, safe world, the world that she had never really seen and now would never see again.

  Copyright © 2024 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by