(Or, Have not Have)
By Geoff Ryman
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 by Geoff Ryman
All rights reserved.
MAE LIVED IN THE LAST VILLAGE IN THE WORLD TO GO ONLINE.
After that, everyone else went on Air.
Mae was the village's fashion expert. She advised on makeup, sold cosmetics, and provided good dresses. Every farmer's wife needed at least one good dress.
Mae would sketch what was being worn in the capital. She would always add a special touch: a lime-green scarf with sequins; or a lacy ruffle with colorful embroidery. A good dress was for display. "We are a happier people and we can wear these gay colors," Mae would advise.
"Yes, that is true," her customer might reply, entranced that fashion expressed their happy culture. "In the photographs, the Japanese women all look so solemn."
"So full of themselves," said Mae, and lowered her head and scowled, and she and her customer would laugh, feeling as sophisticated as anyone in the world.
Mae got her ideas as well as her mascara and lipsticks from her trips to the town. It was a long way and she needed to be driven. When Sunni Haseem offered to drive her down in exchange for a fashion expedition, Mae had to agree. Apart from anything else, Mae had a wedding dress to collect.
Sunni herself was from an old village family, but her husband was a beefy brute from farther down the hill. He puffed on cigarettes and his tanned fingers were as thick and weathered as the necks of turtles. In the backseat with Mae, Sunni giggled and prodded and gleamed with the thought of visiting town with her friend and confidante who was going to unleash her beauty secrets.
Mae smiled and whispered, promising much. "I hope my source will be present today," she said. "She brings me my special colors, you cannot get them anywhere else. I don't ask where she gets them." Mae lowered her eyes and her voice. "I think her husband ..."
A dubious gesture, meaning that perhaps the goods were stolen, stolen from — who knows? — supplies meant for foreign diplomats? The tips of Mae's fingers rattled once, in provocation, across her client's arm.
The town was called Yeshibozkent, which meant Green Valley City. It was now approached through corridors of raw apartment blocks set on beige desert soil. It had billboards, a new jail, discos with mirror balls, illuminated shop signs, and Toyota jeeps that belched out blue smoke.
The town center was as Mae remembered it from childhood. Traditional wooden houses crowded crookedly together. Wooden shingles covered the roofs and gables. The shop signs were tiny, faded, and sometimes hand-lettered. The old market square was still full of peasants selling vegetables laid out on mats. Middle-aged men still played chess outside tiny cafes; youths still prowled in packs.
There was still the public-address system. The address system barked out news and music from the top of the electricity poles. Its sounds drifted over the city, announcing public events or new initiatives against drug dealers. It told of progress on the new highway, and boasted of the well known entertainers who were visiting the town.
Mr. Haseem parked near the market, and the address system seemed to enter Mae's lungs, like cigarette smoke, perfume, or hairspray. She stepped out of the van and breathed it in. The excitement of being in the city trembled in her belly. The address system made Mae's spirits rise as much as much as the bellowing of shoppers, farmers, and donkeys; as much as the smell of raw petrol and cut greenery and drains. She and her middle- aged client looked at each other and gasped and giggled at themselves.
"Now," Mae said, stroking Sunni's hair, her cheek. "It is time for a complete makeover. Let's really do you up. I cannot do as good a workup in the hills."
Mae took her client to Halat's, the same hairdresser as Sunni might have gone to anyway. But Mae was greeted by Halat with cries and smiles and kisses on the cheek. That implied a promise that Mae's client would get special treatment. There was a pretense of consultancy. Mae offered advice, comments, cautions. Careful! — she has such delicate skin! The hair could use more shaping there. And Halat hummed as if perceiving what had been hidden before and then agreed to give the client what she would otherwise have had. But Sunni's nails were soaking, and she sat back in the center of attention, like a queen.
All of this allowed the hairdresser to charge more. Mae had never pressed her luck and asked for a cut. Something beady in Halat's eyes told Mae there would be no point. What Mae got out of it was standing, and that would lead to more work later.
With cucumbers over her eyes, Sunni was safely trapped. Mae announced, "I just have a few errands to run. You relax and let all cares fall away." She disappeared before Sunni could protest.
Mae ran to collect the dress. A disabled girl, a very good seamstress called Miss Soo, had opened up a tiny shop of her own.
Miss Soo was grateful for any business, poor thing, skinny as a rail and twisted. After the usual greetings, Miss Soo shifted around and hobbled and dragged her way to the back of the shop to fetch the dress. Her feet hissed sideways across the uneven concrete floor. Poor little thing, Mae thought. How can she sew?
Yet Miss Soo had a boyfriend in the fashion business — genuinely in the fashion business, far away in the capital city, Balshang. The girl often showed Mae his photograph. It was like a magazine photograph. The boy was very handsome, with a shiny shirt and coiffed-up hair. She kept saying she was saving up money to join him. It was a mystery to Mae what such a boy was doing with a cripple for a girlfriend. Why did he keep contact with her? Publicly Mae would say to friends of the girl: It is the miracle of love, what a good heart he must have. Otherwise she kept her own counsel which was this: You would be very wise not to visit him in Balshang.
The boyfriend sent Miss Soo the patterns of dresses, photographs, magazines, or even whole catalogues. There was one particularly treasured thing; a showcase publication. The cover was like the lid of a box, and it showed in full color the best of the nation's fashion design.
Models so rich and thin they looked like ghosts. They looked half asleep, as if the only place they carried the weight of their wealth was on their eyelids. It was like looking at Western or Japanese women, and yet these were their own people, so long-legged, so modern, so ethereal, as if they were made of air.
Mae hated the clothes. They looked like washing-up towels. Oatmeal or gray in one color, and without a trace of adornment.
Mae sighed with lament. "Why do these rich women go about in their underwear?"
The girl shuffled back with the dress, past piles of unsold oatmeal cloth. Miss Soo had a skinny face full of teeth, and she always looked like she was staring ahead in fear. "If you are rich you have no need to try to look rich." Her voice was soft. She made Mae feel like a peasant without meaning to. She made Mae yearn to escape herself, to be someone else, for the child was effortlessly talented, somehow effortlessly in touch with the outside world.
"Ah, yes," Mae sighed. "But my clients, you know, they live in the hills." She shared a conspiratorial smile with the girl. "Their taste! Speaking of which, let's have a look at my wedding cake of a dress."
The dress was actually meant to look like a cake, all pink and white sugar icing, except that it kept moving all by itself. White wires with Styrofoam bobbles on the ends were surrounded with clouds of white netting.
"Does it need to be quite so busy?" the girl asked doubtfully, encouraged too much by Mae's smile.
"I know my clients," replied Mae, coolly. This is, at least, she thought, a dress that makes some effort. She inspected the work. The needlework was delicious, as if the white cloth were cream that had flowed together. The poor creature could certainly sew, even when she hated the dress.
"That will be fine," said Mae, and made a move towards her purse.
"You are so kind!" murmured Miss Soo, bowing slightly.
Like Mae, Miss Soo was of Chinese extraction. That was meant to make no difference, but somehow it did. Mae and Miss Soo knew what to expect of each other.
The dress was packed in brown paper and carefully tied so it would not crease. There were farewells, and Mae scurried back to the hairdressers. Sunni was only just finished, hairspray and scent rising off her like steam.
"This is the dress," said Mae and peeled back part of the paper, to give Halet and Sunni a glimpse of the tulle and styrofoam.
"Oh!" the women said, as if all that white were clouds, in dreams.
And Halat was paid. There were smiles and nods and compliments and then they left.
Outside the shop, Mae breathed out as though she could now finally speak her mind. "Oh! She is good, that little viper, but you have to watch her, you have to make her work. Did she give you proper attention?"
"Oh, yes, very special attention. I am lucky to have you for a friend," said Sunni. "Let me pay you something for your trouble."
Mae hissed through her teeth. "No, no, I did nothing, I will not hear of it." It was a kind of ritual.
There was no dream in finding Sunni's surly husband. Mr. Haseem was red-faced, half drunk in a club with unvarnished walls and a television.
"You spend my money," he declared. His eyes were on Mae.
"My friend Mae makes no charges," snapped Sunni.
"She takes something from what they charge you." Mr. Haseem glowered like a thunderstorm.
"She makes them charge me less, not more," replied Sunni, her face going like stone.
The two women exchanged glances. Mae's eyes could say: How can you bear it, a woman of culture like you?
It is my tragedy, came the reply, aching out of the ashamed eyes.
So they sat while the husband sobered up and watched television. Mae contemplated the husband's hostility to her, and what might lie behind it.
On the screen, the local female newsreader talked: Talents, such people were called. She wore a red dress with a large gold brooch. Something had been done to her hair to make it stand up in a sweep before falling away. She was groomed as smooth as ice. She chattered in a high voice, perky through a battery of tiger's teeth.
"She goes to Halat's as well," Mae whispered to Sunni. Weather, maps, shots of the honored President and the full cabinet one by one, making big decisions.
The men in the club chose what movie they wanted. Since the satellites, they could do that. Satellites had ruined visits to the town. Before, it used to be that the men were made to sit through something the children or families might also like to watch, so you got everyone together for the watching of the television. The clubs had to be more polite. Now, women hardly saw TV at all and the clubs were full of drinking. The men chose another kung fu movie. Mae and Sunni endured it, sipping Coca-Cola. It became apparent that Mr. Haseem would not buy them dinner.
Finally, late in the evening, Mr. Haseem loaded himself into the van. Enduring, unstoppable, and quite dangerous, he drove them back up into the mountains, weaving across the middle of the road.
"You make a lot of money out of all this," Mr. Haseem said to Mae.
"I ... I make a little something. I try to maintain the standards of the village. I do not want people to see us as peasants. Just because we live on the high road."
Sunni's husband barked out a laugh. "We are peasants!" Then he added, "You do it for the money."
Sunni sighed in embarrassment. And Mae smiled a hard smile to herself in the darkness. You give yourself away, Sunni's-man. You want my husband's land. You want him to be your dependent. And you don't like your wife's money coming to me to prevent it. You want to make both me and my husband your slaves.
It is a strange thing to spend four hours in the dark listening to an engine roar with a man who seeks to destroy you.
IN LATE MAY, SCHOOL ENDED.
There were no fewer than six girls graduating and each one of them needed a new dress. Miss Soo was making two of them; Mae would have to do the others, but she needed to buy the cloth. She had a mobile phone, a potent fashion symbol. But she needed another trip to Yeshibozkent.
Mr. Wing was going to town to collect a new television set for the village. It was going to be connected to the Net. Mr. Wing was something of a politician in his way. He had applied for a national grant to set up a company to provide information services to the village. Swallow Communications, he called himself, and the villagers said it would make him rich.
Kwan, Mr. Wing's wife, was one of Mae's favorite women: She was intelligent and sensible; there was less dissembling with her. Mae enjoyed the drive.
Mr. Wing parked the van in the market square. As Mae reached into the back for her hat, she heard the public-address system. The voice of the Talent was squawking.
"... a tremendous advance for culture," the Talent said. "Now the Green Valley is no farther from the center of the world than Paris, Singapore, or Tokyo."
Mae sniffed, "Hmm. Another choice on this fishing net of theirs."
Wing stood outside the van, ramrod-straight in his brown-and-tan town shirt. "I want to hear this," he said, smiling slightly, taking nips of smoke from his cigarette.
Kwan fanned the air. "Your modern wires say that smoking is dangerous. I wish you would follow all this news you hear."
"Sssh!" he insisted.
The bright female voice still enthused: "Previously all such advances left the Valley far behind because of wiring and machines. This advance will be in the air we breathe. This new thing will be like TV in your head. All you need is the wires in the human mind."
Kwan gathered up her things. "Some nonsense or another," she murmured.
"Next Sunday, there will be a Test. The Test will happen in Tokyo and Singapore but also here in the Valley at the same time. What Tokyo sees and hears, we will see and hear. Tell everyone you know: Next Sunday, there will be a Test. There is no need for fear, alarm, or panic."
Mae listened then. There would certainly be a need for fear and panic if the address system said there was none.
"What test, what kind of test? What? What?" the women demanded of the husband.
Mr. Wing played the relaxed, superior male. He chuckled. "Ho-ho, now you are interested, yes?"
Another man looked up and grinned. "You should watch more TV," he called. He was selling radishes and shook them at the women.
Kwan demanded, "What are they talking about?"
"They will be able to put TV in our heads," said the husband, smiling. He looked down, thinking, perhaps wistfully, of his own new venture. "There has been talk of nothing else on the TV for the last year. But I didn't think it would happen."
All the old market was buzzing like flies on carrion, as if it were still news to them. Two youths in strange puffy clothes spun on their heels and slapped each other's palms, in a gesture that Mae had seen only once or twice before. An old granny waved it all away and kept on accusing a dealer of short measures.
Mae felt grave doubts. "TV in our heads. I don't want TV in my head." She thought of viper newsreaders and kung fu.
Wing said, "It's not just TV. It is more than TV. It is the whole world."
"What does that mean?"
"It will be the Net — only, in your head. The fools and drunks in these parts know nothing about it; it is a word they use to sound modern. But you go to the cafes, you see it. The Net is all things." He began to falter.
"Explain! How can one thing be all things?"
There was a crowd of people gathering to listen.
"Everything is on it. You will see on our new TV. It will be a Net TV." Kwan's husband did not really know, either.
The routine had been soured. Halat the hairdresser was in a very strange mood, giggly, chattery, her teeth clicking together as if it were cold. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Air by Geoff Ryman. Copyright © 2004 by Geoff Ryman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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