Friday, March 1, 2024

Read an extract from Julia by Sandra Newman -Dlight News

Fiction, along with a dozen other departments, had its Hate in Records. Records had the space; half the office had been cleared out in the Small Adjustment of ’79. It also made a nice break for Fiction, because they worked in the lightless depths, while Records was on Floor Ten, with banks of windows on all four walls. The catch was that they weren’t to use lifts – healthy exercise, comrades! To add insult to injury, there were three “ghost” floors, which had once contained bustling offices but now stood empty, so Floor Ten was really Floor Thirteen. This meant not only three extra flights, but that you had to pass those floors-of-the-dead.

Every landing on the stairs was dominated by a telescreen. Syme and Ampleforth, who struggled with the climb, kept pausing to comment in apparent fascination on whatever the telescreen was saying, while panting and mopping the sweat from their brows. Julia had a habit of smiling at each telescreen as she passed, imagining some bored man in surveillance being cheered by her appearance. Stairs held no terrors for her. At twenty-six, she’d never been stronger, and certainly never so well fed. Today she was especially lively after the long, dull hours of idleness, and trotted up, chattering with everyone she met, pressing hands and laughing at jokes. Syme’s name for her was “Love-Me”, which sometimes gave her pause, but could have been far worse. Only at the end did she slow abruptly, when she saw she might overtake O’Brien. As a result, she was right on his heels when the group came pouring into Records.

The first thing she saw was Smith – Old Misery. He was moving chairs into rows, and, absorbed in this chore, looked surprisingly likeable. A lean man of roughly forty, very fair and grey-eyed, he resembled the man from the poster “Honour Our Intellectual Labourers”, though of course without the telescope. He appeared to be dreaming of something cold but fine. Perhaps he was thinking of music. He moved with obvious pleasure, despite his slight limp; you could see he liked to have physical purpose.

But then he noticed Julia, and his mouth thinned with revulsion. It was startling how it changed him: hawk to reptile. Julia thought: “Nothing wrong with you a good shag wouldn’t fix!” This almost made her laugh, for of course it was true. His real trouble wasn’t that his parents had been unpersons, or that he couldn’t keep up with Party doctrine, or even his nasty cough. Old Misery had a bad case of Sex Gone Sour. And naturally the woman was to blame. Who else?

Without giving it much thought, when Smith sat down, Julia went to sit directly behind him. She justified it to herself because it was the seat right by the windows. But when he stiffened, uncomfortable with her presence, she was meanly pleased. Beside her was a low bookshelf with only one book: an old Newspeak dictionary from 1981, now lightly rimed with dust. She imagined running her finger through the dust and writing on his nape with the dirt – perhaps a J for Julia – though of course she never would.

The only trouble was, from here, she could smell him. By all rights, he ought to smell like mildew, but he smelled like good male sweat. Then she noticed his hair, which was thick and fine and might be quite nice to touch. So unfair that the Party warped the good-looking ones. Let them take the Ampleforths and Symes, and leave the Smiths to her.

Then, wouldn’t you know, Margaret came to sit next to Smith, and O’Brien followed after and sat on Margaret’s other side. Margaret and Smith ignored each other. All the Records people were like that. It was a treacherous job, reading oldthink all day, and Records workers kept each other at arm’s length. But what troubled Julia now was the question of why O’Brien was tagging after Margaret. Surely he couldn’t enjoy plain Margaret simpering and sighing at him?

Julia looked away – always the safest option when anyone was doing something peculiar – and gazed out of the bank of windows. At that moment, a scrap of newspaper sailed past, hectically spinning in the air, before it abruptly spread itself and dived to the rooftops far below. From this height, you couldn’t tell prole neighbourhoods from Party neighbourhoods; that was always queer. It also took a moment to pick out the gaps where bombs had fallen; on the street, they were all around you, and London sometimes seemed more crater than city. There was a private-use fuel ban for daylight hours, and you could make out the rare wisps of smoke where the A1 dining centres were. Electricity cuts were in force as well, and the grubby, unlit windows of office buildings had the gloomy radiance of the sea.

A little chunk of the view was obstructed by the massive telescreen on the nearby Transport building, whose moving pictures created the illusion that the daylight kept flickering and subtly changing. The images repeated on a simple loop. First one saw a group of pink-cheeked children innocently playing in a playground. On the horizon, a shadowy group of perverts and Eurasians and capitalists grew, reaching towards the children with brutish hands. Then a cut-out of Big Brother rose and blotted the villains out, and a slogan appeared in the sky: THANK YOU, BIG BROTHER, FOR OUR SAFE CHILDHOOD! After this, the same children reappeared, now in the uniform of the children’s organization, the Spies: grey shorts, blue shirt and red kerchief. The jolly Spies marched past with an Ingsoc flag, and the slogan in the sky became: join the spies! Then all faded, and the first image returned.

Weaving busily above this scene were helicopters. First you noticed the large ones, whose passage was audible even behind thick windows. These were manned by a pilot and two gunners, and you sometimes saw a gunner sitting casually in the open door of a copter with his black rifle resting against his knee. Once you thought of copters, you started noticing the flocks of microcopters below; then the big ones looked like the little ones’ parents. The micros weren’t manned but operated by remote control. They were only for surveillance, and in Outer Party districts, you’d often glance up from a task to find a micro hovering by your window like a nosy bird.

But by far the most striking thing in the view was the Ministry of Love. It rose from the jumble of ruins and low houses like a white fin breaching turbid brown water. On its gleaming surface, you could make out the tiny figures of workmen, attached to a slender tracery of cables, scrubbing its eerily snow-white flank. Apart from the tiny detail of those workmen, the building was so white it gave the impression of being an absence: a portal to nothingness cut through the shabby city and the cloudy sky. Love had no windows at all, giving its austere beauty a suffocating effect. Julia had heard a story that the mice there had no eyes; with no light, they had no need. That was bollocks, of course. Even when there was a power cut, the four big Ministries always had electric light. Still, those mythic blind mice troubled her. They stood for the real terrors behind those walls, terrors one couldn’t see and must imagine in ignorance.

Julia by Sandra Newman (Granta) is the latest pick for the New Scientist Book Club. Sign up and read along with us here

Related Articles

- Advertisement -

Latest Articles

- Advertisement -