Chapter 1 , Chapter 2 , Chapter 3 , Chapter 4 , Chapter 5
Renton placed a leaflet in Mark's hand. 'This should give you the gist, if you want to consult it tomorrow,' he said, a tinge of impatience touching the edges of his smile. The leaflet was headed: “DON'T PANIC – ENJOY THE INTERIM!” It depicted the typical experience of a New Arrival in a series of tersely captioned illustrations. The style of the artwork was crudely functional, suggesting airplane emergency instructions or a road safety pamphlet for children. The first image showed the Arrival, a nondescript Caucasian with fair hair and innocuous features, seated in the terminal with a stricken expression:
ARRIVAL IN INTERMUNDIA CAN BE DISORIENTATING AND EVEN UNPLEASANT – CHIN UP, HELP IS ON THE WAY!
Now the Arrival, more relaxed, is lead through a busy underground train station by a comedic duo of mismatched security guards. The Arrival, in the centre, laughs while the guards bicker and scowl at one another:
YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE MAD TO WORK IN INTERMUNDIA SECURITY – BUT IT HELPS!
In the next image, apparently a non-sequitur, the Arrival has joined forces with a group of plucky young adults and a dog to foil some kind of criminal scheme, mastermined by a villian who wears purple robes and a turban with a Uraeus. The gang laugh while the humiliated villian is lead away by the temporarily non-bumbling security guards:
MANY ADVENTURES TO BE ENJOYED ON ROUTE TO CENTRAL COMMAND!
The Arrival is next seated in genial conversation with his Case Officer. The figure of Marlene is represented by a coarse caricature: her breasts spill out over her top, and swimming eyes suggest an alcoholic stupor. An anatomist's skeleton hangs in the far corner of the office:
NOW ALL YOUR QUESTIONS ARE ANSWERED, IT'S TIME TO RELAX – JUST THINK OF THE INTERIM AS A HOLIDAY WHERE YOU NEVER LEAVE THE AIRPORT!
The next image is the most expansive in the narrative, and depicts the Arrival remembering his last incarnation. His is seated, assumably in the restaurant of the Intermundia Overnight, flanked by a waiter with his head respectfully bowed. The Arrival's hands, palms upturned, lie at either side of the plate. His eyes look aloft, and the open-mouthed, awestruck expression evinces an air of profound epiphany which is peculiarly haunting in the context of the leaflet's drab colours and perfunctionary draughtsmanship. The scenes of his life appear in the form of compressed cliches in a series of smaller bubbles that surround this image. Beaming parents cradle a new-born infant; scenes of a flawlessly happy childhood; the line of trees that mark the edge of the lawn, beyond which a vast world and an endless surfeit of time looms like an extension of the womb; in the afternoon, children's voices soar up from a near-by school, and in the evening the sun sets over hilly meadows and haunted trees; games and high jinks on a muddy field, tears and a grazed knee in a concrete schoolyard; adolescence: a group of boys in an alleyway watch a group of girls walk by, the girls' heads high and aloof, the boy's eyes imploring their receding forms like winsome dogs begging for scraps; college: parents, proud and bittersweet, wave to the young man seated in a train carriage, embarking on the adventure of adulthood; first love, disappointments, challenges; marriage, children, money, time speeding up and space narrowing; now the man sees his own children off to college; aging, struggling with an addiction, hospitals, test results; the autumn of life: a return to the hilly meadows and haunted trees, children's voices rising up from a near-by school, memories and dreams stirring strange echoes, realer than the fading days that surround them; death: his body laid to rest, frail wife and grown-up children by his side; in the final bubble, he has re-awoken in the Intermundia terminal, stark fear and disorientation, forgetfulness once again. These images wheel around the scene in the Intermundia Overnight, the awestruck Arrival and the solemn waiter who is perhaps merely solicitous of a tip:
NOW, HAVING REMEMBERED ALL THE BITTERSWEET GRANDEUR OF LIFE – IT'S TIME TO BOOK YOUR FLIGHT AND BECOME A NEW YOU!
The final panel is a double image: the Arrival and his Case Officer embrace in the terminal; an airplane ascends into the blue sky:
YOUR PLANE HAS SET ITS COURSE FOR THE OVUM – A NEW LIFE AND A NEW ADVENTURE BEGINS!
'Well, thanks, that's a great help', Mark said sourly, stuffing the leaflet into his pocket alongside his passport. Marlene turned briskly from her typewriter, her upper lip curving into an inquisitive pout. Then she lit another cigarette and resumed the trance of her work. Renton gave a final kindly nod, and the door between them closed. Back in the stairwell, the outside world reasserted itself. The boisterous clatter of the bantering guards had risen to a steady hum, beneath which the fountains maintained their placid and timeless falling and refilling. He went gingerly down the stairs, grinning broadly. After all the stresses of the day, the release of the alcohol had turned his mood to that of a carefree, childlike stupor. A woman appeared, mounting the stairs at a reluctant pace. Her body was immobile, like a sack that she lifted from step to step, with the only sign of vitality a spasmodic twitching of her facial muscles. Unable to look her in the eyes, Mark patted her gently on the shoulder as he passed.
Outside on the concourse, the night sky had grown pitch black, and the primary illumination of the street came from the slowly diminishing droves of airplanes that passed overhead. Unruly stars, they painted the fountains and revellers in an undulating flow of flashing oranges and reds that made the world feel unstable and intoxicated. The strange and indolent loafers remained seated at the terraces. They were now drinking coffees and liqueurs. They watched the scene from the disaffected vantage of some immeasurable distance, and their manners had become so dilatory as to suggest that they were images projected from an entirely separate time-stream. Mark wandered into the crowd, looking for Eddie and Giacomo. He went from fountain to fountain for what seemed like an age. The faces of the security guards were terrifying in their explosive gaiety, and he experienced an unexpectedly poignant longing to see his old companions, to find again those faces which alone had become familiar to him in this strange landscape.
Finally, the duo accosted him. In their tipsiness, Eddie and Giacomo were utterly transformed, to the point that they appeared to have exchanged personalities. Eddie was now the more overbearing and assertive of the two, speaking with a brusque, booming voice. Giacomo, in contrast, had lost all his surly and arrogant demeanour. He smiled placidly, and seemed to follow Eddie like a shy, happy child.
Eddie put two bottles of beer in Mark's pockets. 'We better get a move on,' he said, 'we have to get you to the Overnight.' So the they started the journey back the way they had came, swigging from a bottle as they careened into the dark and chilly woodland, among the last stragglers of the day's Arrivals. The journey back was infused with a new kind of strangeness, for Mark observed the terrain in a piecemeal and impressionistic character, from the elevated and temporary vantage of alcoholic sagehood. Stripped of its frightening and bewildering intensity, Intermundia presented itself as a series of ineffable dream paintings, a nighttime gallery where all the walls and frames had vanished, leaving the artworks to press together into an indivisible sequence of wonders and oddities.
At the newsagents, the journalists were emerging from their hammocks, wiping their eyelids and yawning, preparing themselves for another night of wakefulness in which they would wander about, gathering their trove of fugitive images and impressions to scatter in an altered guise in the news headlines of the next day. The homes of the technocrats were now illuminated by soft, warm lamps and dancing gas fires that gave the surrounding trees a reddish glow. Some of the technocrats reclined in studies, drinking wine from goblets and turning the pages of books while their eyes scanned the far distance. Couples were seated in living rooms, and Mark felt as though they spoke to one-another, but their lips didn't move, and the impression of conversation was conveyed by the intensity of their eye-contact. Others had retired to the up-stairs bedrooms and were sleeping. Above the their beds, flatscreen TV panels played hypnotic sequences of intricate and iridescent gemetric patterns that ebbed and flowed into one-another in slow, musical rhythms. Their colours were unlike any that Mark could associate with any earthly thing, and the casual ingenuity and complexity of their evanescent designs beggared belief. 'Those are the dreams of the Technocrats,' Eddie whispered, 'what strange minds they must have.' 'I had a dream like that once, ' Giacomo said, and Eddie flashed him a quick, troubled look.
As they went deeper into the woods, all the planes had ceased their courses, and the sky was starless and moonless. 'How do you know the way?' Mark asked Eddie. 'I've done it so many times, it's like the back of my hand,' Eddie replied, before colliding with a tree. The still, blank deep darkness of the sky troubled Mark. He realized for the first time how accustomed he'd grown the distant roaring of the airplane engines. 'Here we are, ' Eddie announced, and he crouched down and began to lift the steel covering of the manhole. He motioned Giacomo to be go first, and then it was Mark's turn. Finally the three of them were scurrying down the pitch darkness of the shaft with miraculous alacrity. Back in the strange abandoned work-station, their mood became pensive and subdued. Eddie spoke in a whisper: 'Sometimes I think I can figure everything out – that this world is something I can understand. I get very caught up in that feeling for awhile – the feeling like there is a story underlying all these places, a pattern that I can trace out. But every time the excitement eventually fizzles out, and I go back to thinking about what I'm going to have for dinner when I get home. I often wonder what this place was. It seems like everybody left all of a sudden, in a terrible hurry.'
Giacomo, regarding Eddie intensely , replied: 'I grew up a long way away from here. When I was younger, I hated the airport, and I wanted to get away from it. So one night in the bar I was drinking by myself, and I heard these two old pilots talking about the Greenbelt. My ears pricked up, and it was like a hidden world had finally been revealed to me. So after that, I was always listening, always looking for scraps of information about the Greenbelt. And it was like a secret that I knew, and a place both real and unreal at the same time, and I used to dream about it. And whenever I encountered older fellers, who looked like they'd seen a lot of Intermundia, I always asked them when they had wine glowing in their eyes if they'd ever been as far as the 'Belt. And some of them laughed, and some of them looked at me like I was a criminal. But early one morning, I was drinking with one of the vendors, an ancient, wiry fella who always had a weird, faraway expression, like half of his mind was at a dance with the faeries, and I asked him, and he smiled, and his big, deep smile came from that same faraway place, and I knew I finally had an answer in the affirmative. And I put my hand on his shoulder, and whispered How do you get there? And he raised his long, thin arm, and pointed to the west, and said: Keep going straight in that direction and you'll get to the Greenbelt. You can't veer off course, cause the Belt is vast, so if you keep going that way, you can't fail to wander into the middle of it. But the thing is that it's far, far away. Further away than you can imagine. I looked at him, and around the bar, and I looked out at the runways, at the planes departing and arriving, departing and arriving. And I finished my drink, and I started walking in the direction he'd pointed, and I could hear his laugher behind me.'
'Well, that was the beginning of my quest to find the Greenbelt. I lived as a vagrant, scrounging around for money and places to sleep, always on the move. At first I used to sleep in the parking lots, in back of a truck or sometimes inside a car if the door had been left unlocked. Other times I'd go to an Overnight and try to pass myself off as an Arrival. You'd get away with it in some, and in others catch all kinds of hell from the manager. And I kept moving onwards all the time, going straight in the direction that the wiry old vendor had pointed, counting the terminals that I passed each day, and it was always exactly the same thing, again and again: the terminals, the Overnights, the parking lots, the old estates like the ones that we grew up in, the same thing over and over again. Everybody knows that Intermundia is the same thing everywhere, but I don't think you really believe it unless you spend a long time travelling in a straight line. It does things to your mind, that's for sure. And the more the endless monotony drove me to distraction, the more I dreamed about the Greenbelt – the richer, greener, wilder and realer it became in my imagination. The only thing I really looked forward to was sleep, because every night, without fail, I went straight to the Greenbelt, straight to freedom, straight to a place where you could luxuriate in the unpredictable and the unruly, a place without schedules and repetition, a place where being lost was the normal condition because there was no starting point to find your way back to, where all there was to do was wander about in a wondrous daze, a haunted surrender from one adventure and one inexplicable prodigy to the next.'
'And sometimes I thought maybe that's all the Greenbelt was – the dreams you had while you were trying to get there. But I didn't lose faith and I kept moving – moving all the time. And I often fell into the company of Malingerers, because they were the most sympathetic to a vagrant like myself. They'd give me money or food, or let me have a few drinks on them. The Malingerers had all kinds of strange ideas about Intermundia, and I think part of the reason why they bought me drinks was because they wanted to grill me about what really goes on here. And I always told them that I was as wise as they were, and that only the Technocrats and the Case Officers really knew what Intermundia was all about, and maybe even they didn't know. And then they'd ask me about the pilots, and maybe they knew, and I said no, the pilots don't know anything. I'd grilled the pilots myself about what happens up the air, and they told me that they just fly up and up until they get to the Ovum, and the Ovum is like a blinding ball of pure light, and when they get nearer to the Ovum they start to go into a trance, and the next thing they know they're flying back and the plane is empty except for the stewardesses. And I grilled the Malingerers about the Greenbelt, and a lot of them had fascinating information about it, and one of them told me that Malingerers who stay long enough in Intermundia always go the Greenbelt, and that it was Malingerers who founded the city in the 'Belt in the first place. But to this day, the wiry vendor was the only person I've ever met who said he'd actually been there.'
'And on and on I kept going, passing through the same thing again and again. Every once in a very long stretch, you'd come upon the enclaves where the pilots lived – amazing tree-lined estates with beautiful big houses not like anything you'd ever imagine. And they had swimming pools and beautiful wives and servants, and your eyes would get drunk just looking at the lives they lead – the air felt different there, somehow. But then you were back into the grid – back in the endless succession of terminals and overpasses and Overnights – and it almost felt like the same people, and you'd get the fear that you might run into yourself eventually. It got to the point where I could predict which Overnight managers wouldn't ask questions, and which ones would be loony cases like old Digsby – it was like the different personalities were also laid out in a mathematical grid, like we were the same as the buildings and the lots and the Overnights, the same thing again and again. I don't know how long I was searching for the Greenbelt – three years anyway, maybe four or five. Eventually, I stopped dreaming about the 'Belt, and then my nights were the same as my days, the same grind and repetition. And one day, just as suddenly as I'd started off, I stopped right at our terminal, and the next day they put me working with you.'
The pair fell silent after Giacomo's long speech, and they emerged into the train station in the vast cavern beneath the brooding and inscrutable limestone face.
'What's the Greenbelt?' Mark asked.
Eddie, beginning to sober up, was gruff and dismissive: 'It's supposed be a huge area of parks and woodland, and there is a city in the interior where there are no rules, and every possible pleasure and indulgence and vice is freely indulged. It's a made up place, a tale people have been whispering to themselves all these many years.'
Giacomo seemed unconvinced, and he lifted his arm slowly, and pointed it to the west, into the darkness where the train track receded from visibility.
They sobered up on the train, and Mark watched their reflections in the mirror as each returned to his habitual disposition: Eddie to his harried but cheerful obsequiousness, Giacomo to his sleepy arrogance, and Mark to his own suspicious detachment. His introspective mood was interrupted by the appearance of an old man wheeling a tea trolley through the carriage. The man had a lean, lank frame and a thin, wrinkled face whose expression suggested a choleric and senile disposition. It occurred to Mark that he would like a cup of tea, but as soon as the old man registered their presence, his eyes became livid and a torrent of words issued from his mouth like steam from a boiling kettle: 'I WOULDN'T SPIT ON THEM! I WOULDN'T SPIT ON THEM! TELL ME TO PACK UP MY STUFF AND GO HOME, AFTER I'D ALREADY GREASED ME OXTERS AND PUT ON MY OVERALLS! I WOULDN'T SPIT ON THEM! DISRESPECTED BILLY WHEN THEY HADN'T EVEN PUT HIM IN THE GROUND YET, SAID THE CHILD DIDN'T COME FROM BILLY, THAT IT WAS FROM ONE OF THE CARNY MEN WHO RAN THE WHIRLIGIG OR THE CLAW MACHINE! I WOULDN'T SPIT ON THEM!
He continued past their table, the wheels of the trolley whining and his own limbs creaking as he went, turning back occasionally to glare at them and reiterate his total renunciation of whatever party had been the subject of his vituperative outburst. Eddie smirked dryly: 'Ernie's been on the trolley too long.'
Emerging from the underground station, it seemed at first as though the terminal was completely empty. Their footsteps echoed in the looming silence of its red corridors and vast atriums. A petroleum cathedral of the restless modern spirit, the airport had an eerie beauty in its empty and torpid hours. The windows that overlooked the runways were pitch back, projecting a reflection of the observation decks and their rows of empty seating into the night, and creating the ambience of a structure suspended intact in a great void, its purpose elusive and forgotten. Out on the main floor of the terminal, however, they encountered groups of night workers who had finished their shift. They smoked cigarettes and chatted in little groups, conveying the palpable air of contentment which attends the daily cessation of long toils. The morning staff were also arriving, blear-eyed and withdrawn, embodying the contrary mood of grey lethargy and depression which commences the cycle.
Outside, the motorway was all but silent, and the rooftop lettering of the Intermundia Overnight shone bright red against the blackness of the sky. A handful of the conservatories still had their lights on, and figures sat in the wicker chairs or paced the narrow space back and forth. Mark and his companions reached the front steps of the Overnight, and paused at its revolving door. Eddie looked at Mark with a mournful expression. 'Well,' he finally spoke, 'this is where we leave you. It's not the nicest place on earth. The food is very fresh, though – you can be sure the tin was opened that day! Old Digsby has his moods, but he means well. But anyway, no need to worry – you'll be leaving us in no time, going up there, ' his hand pointed up 'faraway from this place. Its been a real pleasure, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay.' They shook hands. Giacomo shrugged and yawned. For a couple of seconds, it appeared as though Eddie was reluctant to go and wanted to say something else, but then he turned awkwardly and the pair sauntered away across the motorway in the direction of the terminal. Mark watched them until they were no longer visible, and then, with little other options, he entered the Intermundia Overnight.