Walls between Worlds
by Will Ellwood
Arkady left the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall and encountered a demonstration outside. Most of the protesters Arkady recognized. This crowd assembled everyday on Horse Guards Avenue holding home-made signs with the names and photographs of missing loved ones. They chanted for answers. Scattered amongst the grieving protesters the expected bloc of Socialist Workers Party protesters joined in, giving the Ministry an excuse to do nothing.
From the Victoria Embankment he watched the wheel of the London Eye turning against the sky. In another London he had been responsible for the growing of a memorial garden in its place.
Arkady headed north towards Embankment underground station. A woman from the protest followed him. She pushed through the late afternoon wave of civil servants heading home. He recognized her, but not from the demonstration because that crowd of tired mothers and wives all looked the same. Her name was Rose and Arkady knew her from before he joined the Ministry. He crossed the road and sat on an iron bench next to the Thames.
She sat down next to him. She still smelled of fabric softener. “Hello Alex.”
“Rose, it’s still Arkady. No one calls me Alex except my parents and my bosses.” Arkady drummed his fingertips on the armrest.
“Fine. Have it your way. I almost didn’t recognize you without your dreadlocks. When did you get rid of them?”
“About two months after that night on New Walk,” Arkady said.
“I never imagined you involved with the army either.”
“They offered me suitable work.”
“It’s been a long time,” Rose said. She offered him an awkward hug similar to the one she left him with on New Walk. Arkady accepted it more for her comfort than his.
“Only three years.”
“Still we used to be good friends.”
“We did,” Arkady said.
“Where did you go? Alison saw you eating alone once. After that where were you?”
A week after New Walk Arkady moved to a country house in the Lake District owned by the Ministry. For six months they ran him through basic training. They isolated Arkady from his own culture and immersed him in another world’s. He resisted shaving his head for the first nine weeks until the summer forced him to choose between his hair or heatstroke. “I can’t tell you. I would, but I can’t. What about you?”
“After you left, me and Peter became serious. I finished training as a nurse. He graduated and joined the Army. Then he went missing and now I’m here trying to find out where he is.”
Arkady knew about Peter. He said nothing and wished Rose would leave him alone. Tomorrow, if everything went to plan, he left for another, safer, London forever.
“Did you love me back then?” Rose said.
“No. I wanted too, but you never let me.”
“You sent me that text message on my birthday.”
“It said I wanted to talk to you about something. You guessed.”
“Was my guess right?”
“Mostly. It’d have been easier for me if you let me talk. Instead I said nothing and we tried to carry on like before.”
“Then me and Peter found each other.”
“And then I left. I didn’t want to be a dickhead.”
“I don’t believe you’d have been one. You’re too nice. Have you met anyone since?”
“I have a wife, “ Arkady said.
Rose smiled. “That’s wonderful. What’s she like?”
“Different. I met her in Northern Ireland. Her father ran the hotel I was being put up in. She somehow got me into surfing. He still hates that his daughter ran off with me. Though having the kid’s helped him calm down.” Arkady met Beth on his first undercover assignment. Her Dad also ran the town’s republican cell, so he worked closely with him until the town liberated itself. Before the uprising, Arkady convinced his superiors to evacuate a heavily pregnant Beth to safer London on a neutral Earth.
“Our lives have turned out differently. I’m happy for you. Really I am.”
Arkady felt echoes of his old feelings of desire for Rose. He wanted to tell her everything he knew about Peter. “I’m sorry about Peter. I need to tell you something. Will you listen?” If he didn’t tell her today then tomorrow the answers about Peter that Rose wanted would be gone. He wanted to tell her.
“Do you know where he is?”
“Rose, look around you. Do you see anyone you recognize?”
Rose stood up. She looked north then south down along the embankment. She pointed at the next bench. A skinny middle-aged woman with dyed red hair pulled back from her thin face sat eating a sandwich from a plastic packet. A paper cup with steam rising from the top rested by her feet. “Yes. There’s Hannah. Her brother’s missing.”
“I don’t like coincidences. Not today. Not ever. Let’s assume she probably doesn’t have a brother. “ Arkady pulled on Rose’s arm. “The group you were with earlier is being watched. I don’t know any more than that, honest. I do know what happened to Peter and I’ll tell you if you meet me in the Starbucks near Charing Cross.”
“I don’t know where that is.”
“You’ll find it. Wait here ten minutes, then go to Embankment underground station,” Arkady said. He pointed north along the Embankment in the direction of the station.
Instead of going north Arkady went south along the Victoria Embankment towards Westminster station. Inside the station’s ticket hall, an elderly gentleman called Martin Griffith approached him. Martin, a man who earned a top government salary from the ministry and who knows what else on the side, wore a second-hand suit. Erratic patches of grey hair sprouted from his face. He attempted to shake Arkady’s hand, but Arkady refused. He didn’t want to be stuck with any of the poison needles that he had a reputation of concealing in his palm. “No. I know you too well. What do you want?”
“To give you advice,” Martin said.
“Keeping your family safe. Don’t tell that woman anything. Remember your life is a secret and the Ministry owns you. I can’t stop you talking but I can arrange things to happen to Beth.”
Arkady passed through the ticket barrier. Martin stayed behind, people pushed around him, until as Arkady boarded the escalator down to the District line platform Martin shouted: “We’ll get our mole in Imperial Intelligence to—”
Rose had arrived at Starbucks before Arkady. She sat in the window clasping a mug of coffee that dwarfed her delicate hands focusing her gaze down into the spinning surface of the coffee. Arkady tapped her on the shoulder. She jumped. Coffee spilled from the mug over her hand and soaked the crumb covered table.
“Where’s Peter?” Rose said. She put the mug down into the pool of coffee and kissed her hand where the coffee had flowed over it.
Arkady took the armchair opposite Rose. He sank into its soft padding. “I’ll come to that. We used to talk about books all the time. Do you remember?”
“What are you reading right now?” Arkady asked.
“What’s your point?”
“To the Lighthouse. It’s my favourite.”
“It’s Beth’s as well. She hadn’t heard of Virginia Woolf before reading it.”
“How could she not have heard of Virginia Woolf? Did she have a pulse when you found her?”
“Her upbringing was different. Isolated. She found a copy in my old satchel. I still haven’t read it.” He tapped the chair’s upholstered armrest nervously.
“That’s mine,” Rose said. “I lent it to you. You lent me The Trial.”
“I never got that back. Did you read it?”
“Yes. I think I enjoyed it. Peter hated it.”
Arkady smiled. “Are you getting a coffee?” Rose said.
“I should.” He lifted a briefcase onto the table, angled it away from Rose, unlocked it and passed her a paperback book from inside. Its cover had a black and white photograph of a wrinkled old man wearing a trench coat standing under an Art Deco street light. The tear-drop bulb dripped light from inside a cast iron eye facing the ground. Etched into that photograph was the word “OTTO”.
Rose opened the book and flicked through its pages. “It’s not in English. How many languages do you know now?”
“Lots. The book’s a detective story. Otto, the main character and maybe the author, is hunting for a serial killer. What he finds early on is that the serial killer is his doppelgänger from another world. Because he can’t travel to this other world Otto, the detective, has to deduce everything about the killer from the murders alone.”
“It sounds strange.”
“It isn’t really all that strange.”
“What about Peter?”
“I’m about to tell you.”
“That book isn’t from this Earth. I’ve been told that there are an infinite number of them and each one faces twelve other separate universes. I’ve been to two other Earths. My wife and son are from first other Earth I visited. Otto was published in an England that exists in the second Earth I visited. I like that one a lot.”
“That’s all a lie. Tell me about Peter?” Rose said.
“Where did he tell you he went?”
“He said Afghanistan.”
“He wasn’t there. Really. Peter’s dead. He died almost a year ago in a town called Newcastle. It was his first operation away from this Earth. Me and him, in our own ways, fought an empire there.”
“How do you know? Prove it.”
“I just do.” Arkady pushed his chair away from the table. “I’ve already said too much. I’m afraid you’ll have to trust me.”
“Right. Are you going to have to kill me now? This a sick lie,” Rose said.
“No. I’d never. Just forget what I said.”
Arkady said nothing else and left angry that he’d risked his family and not been believed. At a nearby taxi rank he climbed into a black cab. When he went to close the door Rose climbed inside. “You left your book.” She threw it onto his lap. “You owe me the truth.”
Maybe he did. They’d been close until she rejected him for the last time on New Walk, but he never wished her ill, and although Arkady disliked Peter, he never hated him. He was just Peter. Richer than Arkady. Someone with more conventional ambitions, duller. Peter wanted to do the right thing. He studied for a proper degree for a proper career after university. He wasn’t Arkady. After New Walk, on the journey north, he decided that Peter was right for her. Later he realized that was an excuse to forget about Rose. He never had completely forgotten.
“Do I?” Arkady asked. “Just drive around until I tell you to stop,” he said to the driver.
“I think so. You’ve never been open with me.”
“We were being watched.”
“That’s another excuse. You keep making excuses.”
“There’s a man who will hurt you if you know the truth. I can’t risk him hurting Beth or Stefan either.”
“Is Stefan your son?”
“Yes,” Arkady said. He smiled every time he mentioned that.
“There’s no one here but me and you. The driver won’t hear anything. Tell me the truth,” Rose said.
“Will you believe me?”
She sat in silence for a moment thinking before saying: “Alex, I have to.”
“You never let me speak freely before.”
“I will this time. I didn’t want to listen then because I just wanted to stay friends. But I need to listen to you now.”
“Peter is dead,” Arkady said.
“Where did he die?”
“I already said. I found him on the beach in Newcastle. When the republicans started to liberate the town, weapons and our soldiers arrived to help them. Peter was with them.”
“How do you know this?”
“I met Beth in that other Newcastle. The week after I got her out and the morning after the uprising started, I walked out onto the beach. The wreckage of that night, men and machine, floated on the surface of the sea and covered the beach. The republicans liberated the town in a single night. I found Peter at the top of the beach still strapped into his parachute harness. A sniper shot him Rose. He got a proper burial. I saw to that.”
“Are you sure it was him?”
“I recognized his face and I checked his dog-tags. When I returned here I checked his file. I wasn’t wrong.”
Rose watched London’s streets pass by in silence. No tears. No movement. Only thought. Arkady could not tell Rose he requested the British soldiers help Beth’s father. He decided that knowing that would not help her. “You said something to me that night I left,” Arkady said.
“You told me that you weren’t the person I thought you were. That I was too good for you. I want you to know that you were wrong about me. When I found Peter on the beach he hadn’t fired a single shot. Do you know how many bullets I had left in my pistol?”
“None. You made the right choice with Peter. He was a good man. He was the better man for you,” Arkady said. He tapped on the perspex screen between them and the driver. “Stop here.”
Arkady paid the driver then he hugged Rose. “You won’t see me again. Keep the book. It’s the only proof I have to offer. Find another Peter.”
Arkady found an underground station. As he walked through the ticket barrier he heard Martin’s voice behind him. “What did you tell her Alexander?” The station’s platform burst with waiting commuters. Arkady found a space to stand at the far end of the platform where the tracks emerged from the the tunnel’s open mouth. He let Martin stand next to him. Martin offered a hand to shake and when Arkady refused he frowned.
“Enough of the truth,” Arkady said. “Even if she can’t prove my story to anyone, it’s too much for you. But you’d rather no one said anything to anyone. I don’t suppose you’ve told the Irish about my wife yet.”
“It makes everything so much simpler to control when no one knows anything.”
“Is safe for now.”
“How much are they paying for your services?”
“The right amount.”
“Just like the Russians paid you the right amount.”
Martin shrugged. “I tell them nothing they can prove. It was the same with the Soviets. Walls between worlds allow this business to happen. I make noise that intelligent people find what they want inside. There might be consequences, but there always are.”
“You don’t care about them, do you?”
“You need to learn that consequences are for other people to worry about,” Martin said.
Commuters stepped back from the platform’s edge anticipating the next train as the tunnel’s mouth started screaming. Martin, indifferent to everything, especially a train, stayed on the edge of the platform. Arkady glanced around the crowd. No one was looking, everyone was too concerned with going home, so he carefully placed a hand behind Martin’s back. “I care about them. I really do,” Arkady said.
As the train spat into the station, Arkady pushed Martin over the platform’s edge. He didn’t hit the tracks, only the front of the oncoming train. In the confusion Arkady pushed his way off the platform before the train stopped.
At the Ministry everyone waited for Martin’s usefulness to end. No tears would be shed for Martin’s suicide. So what if the police identified Arkady on the station’s cameras? He would no longer exist except in memories of people and files. No, the only consequence Arkady would face for telling the truth today was the rain he walked into as he climbed out of the station. Common to all the Londons he visited was the rain.
He decided to never mention Martin or Rose to Beth.
About the Author
Will Ellwood is a speculative fiction writer living in Leicester, England. He writes short fiction about the absurd and contemporary politics. He wishes that he spent more time exploring mountains with interesting people and less time wondering how to survive.
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