It was the summer of '87...
After a year in which I did some temping around London and was a guest of honor at WisCon (the feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin); Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.) shot her beloved Alzheimer's-ridden husband and then herself; I moved into a house that needed a hell of a lot of work; a rumour (apparently false) circulated that two major book chains had black-listed Samuel Delany's books; I read a fascinating book about those who did and didn't fight in the war - er, "police action" - in Southeast Asia; my partner's "best friend" decided to make our lives miserable; Owen Whiteoak put out terrific fanzines, Pam Wells put out some pretty good ones, and Rob and I did some great issues of our various zines, too, if I do say so myself; and Terry Carr, who was the most accessible editor in the sf field and read every single piece of short fiction in that field for many years in order to compile his excellent best-of-the-year anthologies, as well as presenting wonderful new fiction in his Universe series, and who was a much-treasured friend, died, much too soon. The 1987 World Science Fiction Convention was about to be held in Brighton, England, and I wrote another fanzine article....
So the physical density of the environment got to be too much, no space left even to put things away. Fanzines came in and I read them before they became lost in the swirl of paper and wool, disappearing from sight, consciousness. I wanted to write that letter, angry, stop treating yourself this way, get well, don't let yourself die, but I was overwhelmed, preferred to think myself imagining it all, never addressed the envelope to Oakland. There were so many phone calls to make, workmen giving estimates, plans to consider, new floorboards. On the tube I stayed inside the books I was reading, watching for a seat from the corners of my eyes, reading only a few pages a day, the only continuity sometimes when jobs come and go.
In February Madison was warmer than London, brighter still for Chip's easy laugh, Patrick's animation, Teresa's quickness. WisCon glowed like the first star-filled night after seasons of overcast, impossible to lose heart in the face of Andy Hooper's antics. Until Patrick turned and warned, "Expect a phone call any day now." But it was 74 degrees in Washington, easy to forget, and it had never occurred to me I'd need to pack T-shirts. I could laugh at Rob, still impressed by plane flight while I had come to fear it. If I was angry then, it was at Walden's & Dalton's black-listing Chip's books. Still, I meant to send the letter...
The book I'm reading is fat, dense, and recalls too many moments out of greying memory. Myra MacPherson's every paragraph brings up images - Kerry's letters from Chu Lai, one containing a ribbon with "Viet (War) Nam" stitched on it. Kerry returned, withdrawn, unsure. Tic tossing his glass eye in with the collection of medals at the VVAW demo. Dennis with his back always to the wall, jumping at any sharp noise, staring into the floor and blurting, "I killed four hundred people." Always, I stop reading and look up, remembering. I stare at the white words of the title - Long Time Passing - and after a while I see that the cover isn't solid at all. Soon I can even make out a few of the names of the dead that pattern the Wall. And I can hear the music, again, before I realize the train has reached my stop. I can shake the cobwebs loose on the scenic walk down narrow, crowded Bow Lane and be in my work mode by the time it opens up into Cheapside. But I need a break from it - I see the announcement Luke sent me for the founding of a January Society in Minneapolis, and I open the Best of the Year to read "Lucky Strike" and "Blued Moon" again. And we can talk at Worldcon, anyway, and I won't have to leave it to a letter. We always talk, at worldcons.
But finally, the phone call comes. Somehow, the sense of urgency overtakes me at last, too late. I think, instead of a letter, I can phone. I can phone and say it, don't waste yourself, get well. Don't be dead. I fill boxes with books, plastic bags with clothing, and still think we can talk at worldcon. "Read Cirque again," Roz says, but I only hold the book in my hands, staring at the inscription. John Harvey pulls the truck up to the house and I'm awed by Gregory's strength as he single-handedly carries pieces of furniture none of us could lift alone. As items tumble out into the bare house in disarray, I realize I will be unable to find things for weeks, months. My nerves fray, plans fall apart lost between synapses, I still don't believe this shell is mine, or can be. Maybe John and Owen are stronger after all - they carry things, praise the beer, and smile when they leave. Gregory, on the other hand, has made it clear - when he took out his kvetching license, he bought a monopoly, and everyone else can give up on the idea of being able to blow off some steam. The weather has tricked us - it's warm, warmer than April ever is, and it will be May before the lack of electricity really starts to hurt. But not as much as not having a phone. And what does that matter? After all, the phone call has already come.
In memory, I stand on the hill alone in the night and look down at the tiny shapes filling the slit of light beside the gash in the earth that is the Wall. Some looked for the names of those they loved, I knew, but I had consciously refrained from letting the letters come together and make sense. Some of the friends who went were never heard from again, and I would rather think they just hadn't wanted to phone us upon return. All of the ones I saw were wounded, one way or another. In some it just took longer to see, I think, almost missing my stop again. In the dim light of the Royal George, Gregory says that one thing that makes British fandom better, more civilized, than American fandom, is the constant underlying knowledge here that if you get too far out of line, someone might hit you. He sits across from Owen, Pam, Rob, and me, and says that no good fanzines came out in 1986. And I think that Gregory is stronger than any three of us, and I wonder whose fist he would fear. Without a phone I walk through East Ham looking for the big red booths, hoping that one will be functioning, waiting to hear about work. The post office had two packages of books from Gary, one with the American Hardcover of Geldof's book - he knew I'd want that, and I'm pleased. He has sent a replacement for the copy of Women & Madness I gave away, thinking I couldn't afford to ship all my books. June's skies throw thunderstorms down one side of Bowring's offices while bright sunlight burns into the view of the Tower of London from the other wall. I see the Ace logo in the black box and begin to think maybe we won't talk at worldcon after all.
Stu had recommended Knight Life, and I shoot through that and a couple of the Avons - Wolf Dreams is better than I expect; the next one, too, delights, the story of a pig on a quest. I think I admire Ali for what she did, hope I'll have the nerve if the time comes. I once told my doctor that if they accidentally turn off the oxygen during the operation, they should leave it off. I feel the same way about Alzheimer's. Our electrician wanders through the house, switching on lights, and at last I can borrow Rob's copy of Count Zero, losing myself in its shiny surfaces. I can even read at night. Gibson always gives me visual images that stay past the last page, and I still see Angel slumped in front of the console as I sink into the hot bath water and reach for the shampoo. But I'm not ready to return to the war years, so I read another one of the books Farber sent, a fat one this time, about a water world fighting for its life, and can't put it down, find its vocabulary taking my own over, as if Shora is a place I know. A workman stops me in the street to enthuse because we are now safe in the bosom of Maggie, protected from the queers. From the office I dial my own number, and Rob answers. We have a phone, everything is different.
Solstice is cold and rainy, just as it was a year ago when we were married - but suddenly the clouds break apart, the sun shows through on the weeds that have all grown back since I razed them. I'd cleaned them out to see how big a job it would be, and despaired when I saw the extent of the taproots, too much for ordinary garden combat. All of the obits talk about three novels, but I remember the conversation in Miami over dinner - "I just finished writing my first novel." "Great, what's it about?" "It sounds stupid if I describe it." "Okay, describe it." "It's about how love turns a terrible monster into flowers." "You're right, it sounds pretty stupid." But it wasn't stupid at all, of course - it turns out to be one of my favourite books. I kept hoping he'd write another one, but he never did. I have a kitchen with no kitchen in it, a bedroom with only a partial ceiling, an office with partial walls, a house full of bare floorboards, and no hot water. The sunlight glares up off the debris in the yard which has been pulled out of the house, reminding me continually of how much work there is to do yet. Instead, I play with my computer, wait for Rob to come back from town with the comics, fool around with the programs Langford has sent (the Chess program cheats), get more and more hooked on Rogue, wish that my printer was set up (but where?). I've forgotten how to program the phone, dammit. Five hours earlier in New York, eight hours in the Bay Area, it's too early to phone anyway. Maybe I should go out and hack at the weeds, or at least prune back the roses. "Why is there only one woman nominated for an actual Hugo?" "Because it's British fandom," says Owen.
Walking from King's Cross station I can already feel my clothing sticking to me. This is a job where I can wear my "No US intervention in Nicaragua" button. I like working for NatFed, doing something worthwhile, and thank god I can wear jeans, since all of my suits are now covered with plaster dust. We have ceilings, I discover - now all we need is walls, and we can call it a house. Radiators have appeared in most of the rooms, but of course they don't work yet. Having hot water in my own home is becoming the stuff of fantasy. I'm just beginning to think I can see an end to it, and the weather is warm, and I'm working a place I like, and then I open the Herald Tribune and feel like I've been kicked in the stomach when I read that Lewis Powell has quit the Supremes. (Why? How could he?) Oh my god. Justice Hatch? Justice Bork? Aw Christ, this could mean no justice at all... And Jonathan King is back at Oral Roberts University on the re-runs, holding up a doll that sings "Onward Christian Soldiers", remarking on the mysterious ways in which De Lawd works. And an up-date, too - Tammy's plastic face, Oral's tower being hit by lightning, and Huey Lewis campaigning for president. Still, the kitchen has walls now, and I can see sunlight on the surrounding rooftops and Lenny Henry on the box. Hey, I wonder if we'll have summer this year. That would be nice. I could really get into summer. It's just - well, they tell me you really aren't going to be at worldcon, ever again, and I just wish I could tell you how much I miss you.