The Cybergypsies: A True Tale of Lust, War, and Betrayal on the Electronic Frontierby Indra Sinha, Andra Sinha
Whatever you have heard, read, or fantasized about the Internet, the truth is stranger, funnier, more horrifying. Along the invisible pathways of the technonight wanders a strange tribe undetected by the millions of everyday net users./i>/i>
Naked Lunch meets Confessions of an Opium Eater in the virtual world: A mesmerizing first-person account.
Whatever you have heard, read, or fantasized about the Internet, the truth is stranger, funnier, more horrifying. Along the invisible pathways of the technonight wanders a strange tribe undetected by the millions of everyday net users. Some cybergypsies are geeks, technoanarchists who swap computer viruses like baseball cards. But most are seemingly ordinary people, bankers, lawyers, police officers, who at night assume strange identities and engage in weird mind-twisting games, getting their thrills from virtual sex, violence, and even cannibalism. Games leak into their real lives, often with disastrous results.
The Cybergypsies is the story of "Bear," an advertising writer with a wife, children, and a rambling house in the English countryside, who's about to sacrifice everything to his addiction. Bear's real and imaginary lives fuse in a series of bizarre (and often hilarious) adventures. Phantasmagoric tragedies are woven into the dark patterns of his life, building to a personal moral crisis. As the net closes in on him, Bear makes one last desperate attempt to save his marriage.
Two centuries ago, Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater exposed the fantastic world of the opium addict. The Cybergypsies does the same for the virtual world of the cyber addict. On a continuum from William Burroughs and William Gibson, Bear's odyssey takes us into an intoxicating world--alternately terrrifying and ridiculous--where reality and imagination are indistinguishable. It is at once technopuzzle, confession, and strikingly original literary debut.
Sinha's descent into the inferno is painstakingly documented in Cybergypsies, which, even at a hefty 391 pages, weaves a fluid tale of the competing worlds of physical reality and cyber-reality. By extension, the book also serves as a nontechie history of early Net communities like the Well and U.K.-based Greennet.
Sinha's alter ego in the book is "Bear" a name most likely stolen from his online "handle," which only adds to the story's intended confusion between real life and online life. In "reality" Sinha is a thirtysomething ad exec who lives in the English city of Sussex with his wife and three children.
Sinha's introduction to cyberspace started out innocently enough. In 1984, as part of his research for a modem ad he's been hired to write, Sinha takes home an Apricot computer (an early Apple competitor) and a modem. He clicks on the Apricot, the modem whirs, and Bear, turned on to an early multiuser game called Shades, falls headfirst into the global community of loners and hackers who give over their real lives to this imaginary space.
The world that envelopes Bear seems borrowed from the pages of Tolkien's The Hobbit; other times it's as if the author has unlocked a door in Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.
Bear's fantastical band of pranksters includes a hacker in Oklahoma named Geno Paris (his real name); a femme fatale called Calypso who robs men of their money, and even leads one to suicide; and Luna, a disembodied woman whose real identity is never known, but who enchants Bear because she has completely given herself over to the online life.
It's a fascinating chronicle of the Internet community before the Web. But this is no Neuromancer. Rather, Bear's tale seems like the account of a technical amateur who inexplicably finds himself entangled in a foreign underworld.
Bear ultimately wrestles with the definition of "reality." In one crucial moment, he tells a cyberfriend that it's not OK to act out fantasies in cyberspace that would cause damage in the real world, because one world ultimately seeps into the other. (In real life, Bear grapples with other issues of right and wrong, such as whether he should create an ad campaign for a nuclear power plant.)
Among the many vices tempting him, Bear, wildly enough, never commits adultery in cyberspace, at least not in any accepted sense. His late nights spent in front of the glowing screen are enough, however, for his wife to begin calling herself a "modem widow."
The hold that this world has on Bear is as strong as any chemical addiction. Sinha even admits a debt of inspiration to De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. But the author does not point a finger at the Net for the destruction of his marriage; instead, he questions the absence of rules and limitations in a sphere that he believes can be just as real as the one we physically inhabit.
The lecturer at MIT's Sloan School of Management explains how many problems within companies and communities stem from individuals' inability to forge a constructive dialogue. "Our talk drives us apart," Isaacs writes.
- Viking Adult
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.18(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.26(d)
Read an Excerpt
It's 3 a.m. and I'm online to Jesus Slutfucker. JS informs me that he's typing one-handed, knuckling open a beer with the other. Needs a drink, he tells me. He just got home to find his girlfriend throwing her clothes into a case. She said she was sick of being shackled to a sleazeball, his lifestyle was doing unspeakable things to her head, she was leaving. To emphasise the point, on the way out she stuck a knife in his arse. JS is a nurse, so he knows he's barely scratched, but in any case, it's not the knife that hurt.
i 'm b etter off wi thou t the bitch ...
He's trying to tough it out, but the bugger's clearly had a shock. I can tell he's upset by the way he's typing, characters detonating on my screen in bursts of venom. What the hell, JS says, wounded or not, he'll celebrate her departure with a few more beers and then settle down to a serious night's buttkicking on the net. Well, in Oklahoma City where he's hunched over his keyboard it's just after nine, so he has the night ahead of him. For me night's nearly over. Something the moon? my imagination? dawn? is silvering the sky over the Sussex woods to the east. I've been on the computer for six straight hours and am yearning for bed. My eyes are burning from trying to focus the blue flicker of the screen, but JS is getting into his stride and there's something I want to find out. I type:
>Geno, friends here in Britain are shitting themselves about a virus called Satanbug. It's clever and nasty - apparentlyhas come from the US. Do you know anything about this one?
A pause while the satellite relay to the States kicks in. This is the question I've waited up to ask. Jesus Slutfucker, aka Geno Paris, self-styled `technopath', is proprietor of one of the biggest virus collections on the net: all the common viruses you'll find on any bug-exchange bulletin board, plus hundreds of exotic specimens, various unidentified species culled from the wild and not a few he has written himself. He has links to every major partisan group in the virus underground. If anyone knows about Satanbug, it will be Geno. The wait is longer than usual. He's thinking. Then the screen comes to life and characters flash across.
>you know it's a funny thing, bear, you're the second brit in two days who's asked me about satanbug ...
>Who was the other?
>lady logged in here from the uk, asked if i had it ... strange girl ... her name is slasha something or another ... i did not believe she was a she, or really calling from the uk, so i voiced her ...
>You spoke to her?
Slasha must have been exceptional if Geno made a transatlantic voice call from his own phone. Roaming the pre-internet net is expensive, which is why so many of its denizens are there courtesy of someone else's phone bill. The first task for a hacker, long before he starts breaking into other people's computers is to find a way to do it at someone else's expense. It's almost a law of net life. To survive for long as a serious net nomad, you need to be a hacker. Or rich. As a non-hacker who has travelled the nightsky roads for years, my finances are in serious trouble. This call to Geno in Oklahoma City is, for example, costing me a fortune. Our bills, since I began my nocturnal electronic wanderings, have become so terrifying the largest so far was £2,000 in a single quarter that I've had to start hiding them from Eve.
>well she was for real ... but weird ... one of the first things she told me was that she didn't really like american men because they did not know how to cane a girl the way a british gentleman did ... i swear that was almost her exact words ...
I'm so astonished that I forget to reply.
>hey bear, you still alive ...?
Typed communication is always tedious. There's nothing worse during one of these sessions than sitting twiddling your thumbs waiting for the ether to respond. Eventually I muster some words.
>Geno ... the Brits do have quite a reputation for this sort of thing. The French call it `le vice anglais'. But this Slasha ... what did she want with Satanbug?
I feel that he's leaning back in his chair, laughing.
>i knew the brits rep for this type of behavior but i did not think that their women actually enjoyed it ... :) strange lady ... she asked for access here and in return she gave me some viruses ... a couple i don't think i had ...
This too is odd. The only viruses he hasn't got are the kind you don't catch from computers.
>she uploaded a photo of herself - a home made gif ... she's about 36, i think she said, and the gif would seem to support that, and blondish, looks dyed ... see if I can find it. hold on ...
Halfway across the world, Geno can't hear me sigh. It's 3.12 a.m. I leave for work at seven, but of course there is now no question of logging off. Curiosity has locked its wrestler's biceps round my neck. Actually it is more than curiosity. What I'm experiencing is a sort of jangling paranoia. Is it possible that my line is tapped? Sometimes it seems as if all the connections on the net are alive to one another and that information flows through regardless of how you try to dam it up. It finds its own way, leaks along the wires and out onto the airwaves. Information, as would-be hackers never tire of telling us, wants to be free. But certain kinds of intelligence are hard to come by. It has taken me a year to work my way into the virus nets, to get to know the people who write cancerous code and send it out into the world to mutate other people's data. My idea had been to shop these folk, but it's not that simple. There are no laws against writing viruses, only against using them. My motives are easy to misunderstand, so I've told no-one, not even my 'friend' Nasty Ned the Net Nark, of my virus adventure. Geno is my secret. Or so I'd thought until tonight.
The Oklahoma Institute of Virus Research
Unaware of my sudden consternation (panic is vulgar), Mister Slutfucker vanishes from the screen to delve in the hidden part of his bulletin board, the grandly named Oklahoma Institute of Virus Research. It isn't a `real' place. It has no existence in space-time. It is a computer-generated mirage, a cloud castle, a Fata Morgana, yet real people meet here and start things which ricochet into the real world. Geno's board is a piece of software that lets my computer, via a modem, call his. Once past the electronic portcullis, identity and password verified, I'm genuinely inside his system, or the bits of it which he allows me to see.
Being inside someone else's computer is like wandering round their house. Geno's storerooms, where he has gone looking for the picture of mysterious Slasha, are stacked high with things not intended for public inspection: computer viruses, alphabet bombs, trojan horses, virus-generating and mischief-making machines. (Surely `mechanic' comes from the same root as `méchant'?) I tap a key, and Geno's viruses present themselves on my screen, rather like a wine list in a good restaurant names, vintages, descriptions -- lacking only prices. Viruses are the ultimate freeware.
BACKFIND.ARJ 4757 09-26-93 Trojan, overwrites hard drives. Written by some SAD fuck to take down a mutt called Geoff
BACKTIME.ZIP 605 09-12-93 Prague inf., makes time run backwards
BADBOY2.ZIP 1068 09-12-93 Stealth virus, variant "Make me better"
BADBRAIN.ZIP 2822 10-02-93 Brainless virus by Hellraiser
BWOLF. ZIP 2520 10-02-93 Beowulf. Kind of a lame little virus I wrote when I was drunk
Next door, bits of bomb-making equipment lie scattered, as if abandoned by some hastily departed cyber-terrorist.
G2-070B.ZIP 47705 09-13-93 Dark Avengers Virus Writing Program
GWKTROJ.ZIP 4370 09-13-93 Kinda lame trojan maker
INSIBV2.ZIP 34984 09-13-93 Fairly good ansi bomb maker
IVP-V17.ZIP 40610 09-13-93 Instant Virus Production, latest version
MPC091B.ZIP 46178 09-13-93 Virus creator
MTE091.ARJ 11100 09-26-93 MTE Polymorphic engine
TPE11.ZIP 8709 09-02-93 TPE another Mutation Engine
VCL.ZIP 166650 09-13-93 Virus Creation Lab
ZIP-TROJ.ZIP 2203 09-13-93 Ansi bomb, formats disk when unzipped
I imagine the viruses as bombs made by bearded anarchists, innocent-seeming brown paper parcels done up with string and plastered with smudgy foreign stamps, the trojans as rocking horses stuffed with high explosive.
MEGATROJ ZIP 11650 07-13-91 A lethal and destructive trojan, use at your own pleasure
TROJ-1 ZIP 7598 02-19-91 Trojan horse from The Hill People HQ
TROJANS ZIP 38447 07-13-91 Trojan horses from The Immortal Grounds, Sysop: Toxic Waste
ARIHAK93.ZIP 63368 11-13-93* ARiSToTLE's instant 500-virus creator
BOGUS.ZIP 124469 09-13-93 Bogus Msg writter (sic)
Bogus Message Writer is one of Geno's own méchantisms, a device which enables him to pepper the net with thousands of scatological messages, each of which appears to come from someone he dislikes. ARiSToTLE's viruses-while-u-wait creator (ARiSToTLE is a flamboyant virus collector from Virginia), I picture as a collection of multicoloured tubes and pipes, like a Würlitzer jukebox. I once tried it. It chuntered for hours before spawning a swarm of viruses that looked like a drawerful of silverfishes, thus:
[Alpha][Gamma][Iota][Sigma]101.zip 668 14/08/93 10:31
[Alpha][Gamma][Iota][Sigma]102.zip 662 14/08/93 10:32
[Alpha][Gamma][Iota][Sigma]103.zip 661 14/08/93 10:32
[Alpha][Gamma][Iota][Sigma]104.zip 664 14/08/93 10:32
[Alpha][Gamma][Iota][Sigma]105.zip 669 14/08/93 10:32
You ask innocently: Bear, what is a computer virus? It is a tiny program, a scrap of code that burrows into other programs, then makes copies of itself to infect further hosts, like a biological virus. It needn't be destructive. If you're simply interested in replication, your virus will probably be harmless. It's easy, however, to include instructions that erase or mangle data, or cause the characters on your victim's screen to cascade tinkling into a heap at the bottom. Rumour has it that Satanbug is a nasty virus. But however mean a virus may be, a trojan horse is nastier, because its intention is always hostile. Viruses play a mischievous game of catch me if you can. Trojans lie. They masquerade as harmless programs, but when you run them, they may wipe your hard disk, delete files or, as Geno puts it, `tunnel down and fuck the FAT' (the file allocation table which tells your computer where to find its files). Particularly cruel was Story Book, which told its victims, `Watch your child smile as Homely (the G-rated) Clown happily tells his story.'
`Joy,' says Geno, `is creative and stylish destruction.'
Oddly, in all the time several months I've been calling Geno's board, I have never asked him what he looks like. In my mind he shapeshifts. Sometimes he's large, blond, moustachioed. At other times short, wiry, dark. He has long hair tied back in a ponytail, or a Yul Brynner No.1 cut. In reality, I know nothing about him save what he sends to my screen. I feel we're mates, yet I've never even heard his voice. It's a strange kind of friendship, which blossoms like a bat-pollinated durian flower, always in the dead of night.
And the crow makes wing to the rooky wood,
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse
And night's black agents to their preys do rouse.
These lines come to me, and I think of what I've become.
Alone in the cybernight
3.21 a.m. in the weald of Sussex. In the field outside my window, a small animal, probably a rabbit, screams as its life is ended by a fox. There are far more lethal creatures abroad, but no-one dreams that they exist.
The night, my love, is full of invisible pathways, crisscrossing the globe, bounced off the stratosphere by orbiting comsats. Along them wander an odd gypsy folk, ceaselessly exploring, always on the lookout for new systems, new people, new information. They congregate, these travellers, at the oases and caravanserais of cyberspace: this bulletin board, that multi-user game. Fifty million people connected to the net, yet all over the world you meet these same few. You come across their spoor on systems in South Africa and Argentina. You bump into them at online parties in San Francisco or Stockholm. You hear rumours that they've hacked a High Street bank, or were last seen heading Amazonwards to track down illegal mahogany cutters with satellite-linked bulletin boards. Faster than the jet set is this net set. They can flit from London to San Francisco to Finland in seconds, and have friends, on whom they regularly call, in places like Sarajevo, Bombay and Vladivostok. Some are hackers, virus writers you may never know who they really are. Some may be known to you as scientists, housewives, musicians, policemen, yet in other guises you have probably fought them on multi-user games or flirted with them in that haven of deep roleplayers, the Vortex. These people are the cybergypsies, the explorers of cyberspace. Theirs were the first camps in cyberspace. They mapped it and made its links. They named the constellations of its night sky. They share your secret life, and guilt.
3.25 a.m. Here in Britain respectable computer folk have long since climbed the wooden hill. Earnest techies, calling each others' boards to keep up with the latest anorak talk, are sleeping now. The universities have quietened down for the night and their network, the JANET, is just a whisper. In the City of London, fifty miles north of us, big commercial networks are running their inhuman data transfers, banks and corporations trading digits with, here and there, like a fly on a precipice, the odd hacker patiently trying to find a way to crawl in.
At this hour, the only hotspots are the really dedicated multiuser games and certain offbeat bulletin boards. On Shades, the serial killers will be lurking, hoping to ambush unwary necromancers and enchanters come to gather easy points in the dead of night. The roleplayers at the mysterious Vortex will still be playing out their bizarre fantasies. The software pirates are busy, but their boards are always busy all night. On the porno boards, lusts will be subsiding as patrons are forced by tomorrow's approaching workday to drag themselves away from their keyboards to solitary beds.
Then there are the people like me, the addicts, who drift round the globe with the tide of darkness. 9.25 p.m. now in Oklahoma City. East Coast America is just coming online. The partying on The WELL, in San Francisco, won't be in full swing for maybe six hours yet. Nothing significant ever happens on the net before midnight. The catch is that midnight is sweeping round the world at speeds up to and including 1,000 mph. Some modem jockeys like to ride the cusp of darkness round the globe. If you're addicted enough, have unlimited funds and access to chemicals, you can make night last forever, because it's always night somewhere on the net.
3.27 a.m. Geno's back.
>found it, yeah, it comes back ... she had a kind of cultured british accent (if I am any judge, because all I have to go on is the movie my fair lady and my brief setting down in scotland when i was in the air`force) but another thing she likes to talk about is how that riding crops are really too nasty to use on human beings, unless that they really deserve it ... :)
>This is very peculiar Geno. Really extremely strange.
>yeah, but i must admit this slasha, or sasha is entertaining ...
>You've no idea how fucking weird this is.
>come on, thought you limeys would be used to this kind of thing ... hey, tell you what, i'll squirt you her picture along with the virus ... okay stand by to receive satanbug and slasha ...
It's too late at night to explain that it's not the sado-masochism that's weird. There are lots of S&M-ers on the net. They meet in places like the Vortex, which has a facility, Madame Pompadora's, devoted to the art of pain. No, what is weird is that hours earlier, I'd first heard of the Satanbug virus from a British bulletin-board operator called Josh, whose girlfriend is Carmine. And Carmine is a slender blonde whose bedtime reading is Skin Two catalogues, who attends clingfilm and candlewax parties with the keener Vortex players and, if this isn't clear enough, is known to have a fondness for the lash. Last time I saw Carmine, she was sheathed in a black rubber dress that clung like a condom, sucking vodka through a leather mask that sprouted nails like porcupine quills.
Can it just be coincidence that, one day after Slasha's chat with Jesus Slutfucker, Josh calls me to ask about Satanbug? Slasha gave Geno a copy of Satanbug. Could it have been marked? All it would take is a tiny change to the code like a radioactive trace put into the bloodstream so that its route back into the UK could be traced? But why suspect me? Josh doesn't know I know Geno. Surely he doesn't imagine I'm the channel by which American viruses are entering Britain? Tired worries scrape the inside of my skull like metal buttons clattering round in a laundromat. Pointless. Geno is about to send me Slasha's picture. I'll soon know if it was Carmine. I sit and watch the Satanbug virus drip into my system.
The bug arrives zipped, compressed, ergo safe. Amazing how many `experts' don't realise that viruses can't infect you unless you actually run them. The tiny .com files in the zip envelope are the monsters: sat-bug.com is the virus itself, test1.com is an infected file. Geno's typing back to me:
>there are two satanbug viruses, i think ... i am really not sure who wrote the first one, i think it was viper or priest but various people have claimed responsibility, strange you should mention it, i got the second version from the brit girl who likes to have her ass beat and then again today from brother jack. both seem to be the same and undetectable ... okay here comes slasha.
`Bear, what are you doing?'
My heart leaps like Basho's frog. My wife is standing in the doorway in her nightie, shading her eyes against the light.
`Eve!' I say lamely, 'I thought you were asleep.'
`I can't sleep. What are you doing?'
`Just finishing some writing. I'll be up in a minute.'
`It's three-thirty, you've got work in the morning.'
`Don't worry about it.'
She's frowning. I can't tell if she's upset.
`You're not writing. What are you really doing?'
Luckily she doesn't come any nearer. The picture of Slasha has just arrived, Geno is back online, busy hammering his keyboard, the letters come skittering across the screen:
>... maybe all brit women like to be beat i dunno :) american women seem not to like it so much, one redneck up here just got his dick cut off (real big in the news)for beating and raping his wife ...
Eve is shivering. I get up, go over and put my arms around her. She doesn't respond. From the corner of my eye I watch Mr. Slutfucker's outpourings scattergun across my screen.
`I'll be up in a second,' I tell her. `Promise.'
Eve says quietly, 'You do this every night.' She removes herself from my arms and is gone.
I wait till I'm sure she's back in bed, then examine the gif. A blowsy, puffy faced woman stares out of the screen at me. Nothing like Josh's ex-girlfriend. Coincidence, after all.
From the rest of the world it's invisible. Driving by in the lane, we don't know it's there. All we see are trees oak, ash, hawthorn, hazel, hornbeam, cherry raising leafy battlements and towers. But there's a gate. Ducking, we enter a cave of leaves, at the far end of which is a smudge of light. Roots writhe at our feet. Eve peers into the green chaos, pulls back a branch to reveal the perfect rose-shape of a camellia.
`We'd be crazy to take this on,' she says. `We'll never cope.'
We're within feet of the house before we see it, its walls hung with clay-tiles in the style of the Sussex Weald, bricks greened by the gloom of the trees. Paint is flaking from its window frames, squares of cardboard stand in for missing panes of glass. The front door is sentried by brambles that drop soft, spiky spears to bar our way. Everywhere, things drip on us and the light is green. I fall in love with it immediately.
We find the owner Grolius an old man with a shock of white hair that explodes in all directions from under a sailor's cap, beard to match sitting on a log by the back door.
`That's right, front door doesn't open,' he says, when we explain our abrupt appearance. `Off its hinges. Frame's all rotten, wants replacing. I've had to nail it shut.'
He seems dejected to learn why we've come. The house is on the market, he tells us, because his wife wants to move.
`She's fed up, wants to see the back of it. Told me I had to bloody well get the place smartened up. Well, it does need a lick of paint here and there. Bit of weeding maybe. Though I don't like killing things.'
Such is apparent. He walks us round a garden in revolution, an uprising of flowering, seeding weeds. Everywhere, things are tied up, tied back or tied together nothing is pruned. No blade has ever been taken to these plants, no stem severed, no sap shed, no root from its mother's womb untimely ripp'd.
`It's lovely,' Eve says, and I can tell she's not keen.
`Bless you. There's not many would agree,' says Grolius, tying one more knot into a cats-cradle of twine that is trying unsuccessfully to confine a climbing rose.
`Had a couple here two days ago, walked round with their noses in the air. Caught 'em giving dirty looks to the daisies in the grass. Can't rightly call it a lawn I daresay. To me grass without daisies is like a night without stars. They went off saying "Sorry, don't think it's really quite us".'
`Don't worry Mr Grolius, we're not put off,' I tell him, not looking at Eve. `It's charming, your garden.'
`It's a real bit of old Sussex,' says Grolius proudly. `Land's never had nothing done to it. Not the garden, not the paddocks. No chemicals, no fertilizers. The plants here's been growing in these parts since time out of mind. Got some rare ones. That one, there. Rare one, that is.'
Eve whispers to me, `It's a grape hyacinth.'
She can name them all, lungwort, toadflax, lilac, syringa, peony, thrusting from the wreck of what had once been a horticulturalist's garden. A garden fork stands rusting in a bed of roses, bindweed twining up its shaft: Eve mutters that it would make a perfect cover for a book called `The Idle Gardener'.
The orchard is as overgrown as the rest of the place: about twenty apple and pear trees with brambles rearing in their branches and, lost in blackberry jungle, six rotting hen houses.
`I'm leaving the hens,' says Grolius. `There's only five left. Don't want no extra for them. But I want you to know they was family pets.'
Eve gives a little laugh.
`Don't worry,' she tells him, `we wouldn't eat them.'
`One other thing,' he says, waving at an elder tree which is growing through the broken frames of a once elegant greenhouse, offering its bitter plates of white flowers to us as we pass, `you'll think me odd for saying so, but the elder, if you want her out, even if you want to break a branch of her, you must ask her pardon first.'
`Be honest with you,' says the old man, leading the way back to the house, `she has got it all worked out, my wife, when people come to view the place. Tricks learned off the estate agent. Get the coffee brewing. Real beans, got to grind 'em first, instant won't do. Stick Mozart on the gramophone. Flowers all over the house. But I never did any of that because I didn't want anyone to buy it.'
Eve glances at me in dismay. Grolius, wading chest-deep in cow parsley, stops to push at a leaning laburnum.
`I did my best to put 'em off,' he tells us. `It's why I don't mend things. Break my heart to leave this place, Mrs ...?'
`... Bear,' says Eve, horrified yet relieved by these disclosures. `Don't you worry, Mr Grolius, we won't buy it. Will we, Bear?'
`No,' I say. `Oh no, certainly not.'
But this makes Grolius even more mournful. 'Oh dear. Oh dear, I thought you liked it. Don't you like it, Mrs Bear?'
`Well, yes, it's lovely,' says trapped Eve.
`Then you will have it' says Grolius. `No, I insist. It's no good me trying to hold onto it. See, the thing is, Mr and Mrs Bear, to be frank, I can't hold on. Me and my wife, we're separating. She's found a place she wants and she needs the money quick.'
His eyes moisten. He tells how he and his wife no longer speak. They live in the house like two strangers, cook for themselves, do their own washing, avert their eyes and no longer bother to mumble greetings when they pass. They communicate by note. I catch Eve's glance and guess what she's thinking, which is what I'm thinking, that this will not ever happen to us.
As we leave, all we can see of Grolius in the undergrowth is the sailor's cap, hair going off like fireworks, and a waving arm. Later, we realise we hadn't really noticed the house, except that it was dark and smelt of damp and apples the typical smell of an unheated English country cottage.
`We can't live there,' Eve says firmly. `It's falling to bits. The walls are damp, there's a horrible black mould up near the ceilings. There's no proper heating. The children will get ill. The garden's a wilderness. There's too much to be done, and you're away in London all the time. We'd never cope.'
The day before we move in Grolius telephones full of apologies that another apple tree has blown down. And we needn't worry about the hens because, well, the old fox, he's scoffed the lot.
Our packing cases, thirty tea-chests of books, leave no room in the house. We take the two small children and huge dog and go outside to explore.
Grolius's log is still outside the back door, a limp wet object flattened upon it.
`Look, Bear,' Eve says, `he's left you his cap.'
Without the exotic presence of Grolius, the place reverts to what it really is, a damp house in a soggy wilderness. I'm also aware that Eve only agreed to move because I promised her I'd work hard to restore the house and help her coax a garden from the wild. She doesn't say so, but I know she's regretting the comfortable little house we left behind, friends miles away. For a whole month after our move it rains continuously, but we nonetheless set to, pruning and digging. Under the ashes of a bonfire, I find an old midden and fork out things that must have been thrown away when the house was young, a belt buckle formed of rust, a china doll's hand and angular bottles of dark blue glass embossed with the name of a long ago paregoric.
Beyond the orchard a green lane runs to a meadow where the grasses are up to Eve's shoulders. We tread paths through and trample a dell in the centre. We lie hidden, in a circle walled with grass, and make love with only the passing clouds as witnesses. Afterwards, with her head cradled on my shoulder, Eve sleepily murmurs, `Bear, what did Grolius mean about the elder?'
The day after we move in our four-year-old daughter jumps around the floor of the drawing room.
`Ooh look, like a bouncy castle.'
Something our surveyor has missed: in one corner the floorboards spring a good four inches. Lifting them reveals the joists to be black and spongy. An odour like mushrooms. Wet rot. The whole lot will have to come out.
I earmark the small room next door as a study and move my boxes in. Books, stationery, computer, and a small box containing the modem.
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