The following extract is from Dreamtime by Venetia Welby. The world may be on a precipice but Sol, fresh from Tucson-desert rehab, finally has an answer to the question that has dogged her since childhood. And not a moment too soon. With aviation grinding to a halt in the face of global climate meltdown, this is the last chance to connect with her absentee father, a US marine stationed in Okinawa. To mend their broken past Sol and her lovelorn friend Kit must journey across poisoned oceans to the furthest reaches of the Japanese archipelago, a place where sea, sky and earth converge at the forefront of an encroaching environmental and geopolitical catastrophe; a place battered by the relentless tides of history, haunted by the ghosts of its past, where the real and the virtual, the dreamed and the lived, are ever harder to define. In Dreamtime Venetia Welby paints a terrifying and captivating vision of our near future and takes us on a vertiginous odyssey into the unknown. Welby’s work is published by Salt.
23.30 ⚡ Yay Sol V, your Holograb has sent! ⚡
Hey again Jonny, or would Dad be too weird, ha ha?
Look, I’ve called a lot of people Dad over the years and they’ve all been total assholes.
But you’re not – I can tell – you seem lovely, by the way.
I can’t wait to meet you!
I feel like I might finally start to know myself, y’know?
Well anyway, I’m not much like Janet – ha ha – that much is clear.
She’s still a bit batshit, in case you were wondering.
So I must be like you, no?
Do you think we look alike?
Same nose, I guess. Now I know who to thank for that!
So, I guess I’ll see you next week …
Thanks for saying I can stay! Your place looks awesome.
Such perfect timing, can’t believe I’ll be there for my birthday.
Can’t think of anywhere I’d rather turn thirty, or anyone I’d rather be with.
Tokyo here I come!
Goddamnit, I’m less excitable in real life, I promise you.
OK, gotta go now.
Jonny Quiss’s apartment seems too small for his ample frame, the furniture too low, the walls too close. Kit must shrink against those walls for Jonny to pass. Jonny appears underwhelmed – in fact pretty furious – about his chaperoning presence here with Sol. Why hadn’t she mentioned it? Kit wonders.
In the former shock of neon that is Shibuya, central Tokyo, the towers that remain since the shattering earthquake look weary and worn around the edges, an ageing that these modern buildings do not wear well. It’s quiet to the point of eerie in here and the rooms are forbiddingly bare, as if Jonny is the sole occupant of all these two-bedroomed apartments. They have not yet seen or heard a single other inhabitant, the elevator doesn’t work and even the concierge in the lobby is no longer in evidence, though the desk remains.
This ghost block is not so tall as some of its neighbours, a mere five storeys, but squat and wide. The cracks are showing though, and Kit has seen piles of rubble on their walk from the subway. Shibuya Station itself and the once hectic Scramble Crossing looked fully regenerated – all ad screens looming, leering, screaming. This is what you see on the news: Tokyo restored. But the shiny footage conceals as much; the place is half-wrecked still.
Sol is to sleep on tatami mats in the tiny second bedroom; Kit is to sleep on the floor – this is clearly to be his role in life – in the kitchen that is also the sitting room. ‘Sorry, buddy, no more mats,’ Jonny states with evident enjoyment, before directing Kit to a convenience store to feed himself; Jonny had been expecting only one guest, he explains for the seventh time, and therefore only bought sufficient pot noodles for two.
It is a wakeful night. Jet lag has him in its claws. It was the first time he’d flown anywhere, and one of the last planes the sky would see.
The flight west from LA to Tokyo had taken them back across time through a thousand-coloured dawn to darkness, a glowing red sun just beginning to rise. For eight hours they hovered in this uncanny light, ever one step ahead of a day on the verge of emerging, a world between worlds. Kit felt as if aviation itself were reversing its path, humanity folding its creations back into itself, like a mother gathering up her children as she prepares for the end. At one point between wake and sleep, he worried that the sun might not rise at all this time. He found his hand was touching Sol’s arm, the comfort of her sleeping skin, and she angled herself toward him in flower-like response.
Kit listens to the unnerving creak of the tower block – as if it’s swaying in the hot wind. He filters Jonny’s answers to his many and varied questions and deduces that this is most definitely the wrong Jonny Quiss, if that is indeed his name.
‘He doesn’t even know which part of the States you’re from! Or your mother’s name …’ he adds definitively to the list of charges laid at Sol’s tiny and perfect feet on Saturday morning. Oh god, please don’t let her be his sister after all.
‘People forget things.’ She sniffs. ‘He’s been in Japan for a long time. And children don’t always look like their parents, do they? In any case, there’s something about his eyebrows that’s very me.’
When Quiss surfaces, Kit inspects these eyebrows and agrees that they are indeed curiously slender and manicured for a dude.
Sol starts smiling at him again.
In the evening, Jonny Quiss takes them (Kit has to insist on coming too) to a nearby izakaya, a Japanese pub. It is a den dug into the ground, air thick with fumes of smoke and sake. Sol is wearing a whiskey-coloured silk slip dress that Kit hasn’t seen before, and heels that she hands over reluctantly as they descend into the nook of dark wood. She appears to have magicked an entire wardrobe into her bag and he, feeling red-eyed and underdressed, has conceded a white shirt, the only one that made it out here. In their shadowy booth, carved off from the rest of the bar by ornate latticework, a teak tabletop divides him from Sol and Jonny. Beneath it the floor is lowered, a pit for hairy legs in shorts. Sol’s are curled up on the flat cushion next to Daddy. At some point Jonny’s arm creeps around Sol’s waist. Every so often Kit sees his fingers twitch up, or down, and he feels a little electric shock of outrage. Sol is completely unperturbed. If anything, she nestles into Jonny a bit more.
At the heavy wooden bar, three suited salarymen loll forward, fast asleep and statue-still, as if time has stopped – imprisoned and immortalised them.
Jonny resumes his campaign to get Sol pissed. ‘You were named after my favourite Mexican beer, darlin’ – it’d be a crime not to.’ Kit tries to catch her eye but she won’t meet his. She seems enchanted by the city, high on it after the bloodless hush of the residential block.
Eyeing Jonny’s expansive flesh, Kit reflects yet again on the obscene flattery of his hologram. Back at her post-Lights halfway house, reunited with her Virrea, Sol had shown him an animated shot of Jonny’s Holograb. The man was reclining suavely against some brightly coloured cushions, softly lit by something resembling a chandelier. It’s not how Kit would have pictured a marine abroad. He’d agreed that the two had a slight nasal resemblance, the same strong jaw and cheekbones and slanting brown eyes, features which sometimes seem too large in Sol’s slight frame. His avatar’s hair was greying where hers is dark brown, and swept back with a slight wave to it where hers is set in spiny disarray, like a sea urchin. But any likeness at all is hard to see now, other than perhaps a slight upward tilt of defiant jaw.
He could have doctored his hologram to match hers, Kit supposes. He’d certainly enhanced his living quarters.
Jonny orders sake and three cups. Sol, who had protested half-heartedly about the beer, murmurs approvingly. ‘What?’ she says, finally allowing her eye to be caught. ‘I went to Lights for opiates, not booze.’
‘Yeah, give the girl a break,’ says Jonny, lighting a cigarette and pushing the blue Mevius pack over to Sol. He looks like he’s spent a lot of time in places such as this over the years.
The men at the bar suddenly reanimate and order more drinks. One stands up, starts to sing something with enthusiasm and falls over. The robot barman zooms to help him out, extracting his wallet and, therein, the yen he has spent here. Japan is one of the last cash societies left on earth – strange, given their almost total reliance on the virtual. As the man stumbles into the street, no longer in the care of the establishment, Kit has a memory – or is it a premonition – of Sol at that stage of inebriation, a danger to herself and others. The time she found an unlocked car on Fourth Avenue: teenage Sol careering, unlicensed, through the centre of Tucson until a flower-shop window stopped her rampage. She should have been in Lights for booze.
Jonny extends a fleshy forearm to fill Sol’s cup with sake and then smacks the table buzzer with force. There’s a quietness here, a respectfulness in the way people behave with one another. Jonny highlights this by contrast with his own noise as he places an order with the scurrying robot waiter. He is loud in a way that takes up more space than even the trio of drunk Tokyoites.
Not once are they interrupted by the staff, nor is Kit able to detect the tip-seeking behaviour so essential to his own survival in Tucson. Suits him. And why would robots require tips? Kit had sold his beloved bike to contribute to costs, but it is Sol who bought their flights, using her father’s guilt money. They were lucky to fly at all. She had only just scraped these tickets – all too close to the New Year cut-off – and she thought they were fake until the plane actually took off.
Kit watches Jonny talking to Sol, leaning across her, blocking him out. He’s holding forth about his upbringing in Miami before the sea levels rose. Sol’s elated face looks ever more intrigued.
‘So, Jonny, when did the marines bring you to Tucson?’ Kit tries a new line of questioning.
‘I was just passin’ through, Ket. Met Sol’s ma and decided to stop passin’.’ Some octopus tempura lands on the dark wood between them and Jonny dives at it with chopsticks. ‘Octopus,’ he declares through a mouthful of it, ‘is one of the few things left in the sea that can cope with all the shit in it.’ He laughs uproariously.
Kit persists: ‘So then the Marine Corps sent you to the Pacific?’
‘This guy’s hilarious.’ Jonny nuzzles into Sol’s echinate hair as more survivor specimens are delivered to their table: pickled jellyfish, noodle-wrapped squid, beetles seduced by something sweet and sticky.
‘The Japanese have always been imaginative and brilliant chefs,’ Kit had read in the airline’s valedictory magazine, ‘and nowhere can this be seen more plainly than in their culinary response to the toxicity of fish.’
Seeing the abundance of tentacled sea creatures in this izakaya, Kit wonders how these can be safe to eat. Just because some species have grown strong on detritus – the fighting crabs of the deep sea, say – that surely doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for humans to eat them.
He stabs a lacquered beetle with a toothpick and gingerly bites down, cracking the carapace and letting the juicy innards fill his mouth.
‘What’s it like, Kit?’ Sol smiles at him and he finds himself grinning back, that involuntary mirror response he always has with her.
‘Kind of like a sugared shrimp.’ It’s really not that bad. Growing up it would have been weird and repulsive to eat the kissing bugs and robber flies of the desert. The fear of the tick in an earhole, the scorpion in a shoe. Us and them. Phoenix had called it: the future will mean eating things like this, he’d said, dangling a giant crab spider horribly as Kit squirmed.
From his side of the table he can see two chefs working with studied patience behind the bar, one attending wholly to the turning of two single skewers of asparagus and shitake mushroom. Robots are not up to this job, then.
He wonders, suddenly, what they feed Phoenix in prison these days. Those big old huntsman spiders would be poetic justice, but it’s more likely nutrient pills. As a teenager Kit thought he’d also end up in jail, like father like son, a chain gang of dodgy DNA. Sol said once – in a rare moment of self-awareness – that people who feel guilty believe, on some level, that they should be incarcerated. They’re unable to stop themselves trying to bring about that result again and again. How narrowly she’d avoided prison this time.
Anyway, he is guilty. Had he and Sol not wandered off on another desert quest to find Sol’s father, Chrissie would still be alive and the commune would still be ticking along. Imperfect, oh yes, but what is not?
He dreams of the place often. He dreams of his half siblings, now dispersed like fallout on the wind, and he dreams of being back in that small private world with Sol, protected from the outside. Japan is alien; it throws open the vastness of the universe and exposes him, a small bleating creature trapped in its own skin.
He took Sol to see the old camp once. Not for long, though: there were bright-beaded Gila monsters swarming all over it. Terrible lizards.
Kit swings his legs out, using his halting Japanese to ask the robot waiter for the restroom. He’s learnt a little on his Virrea, immersed in a virtual Tokyo that looked quite different from this real one. Unnecessary really, now that translation pieces are so much more sophisticated (they’ve each bought the full set – eye, ear and tongue) but he wanted to try. The waiter replies in perfect American, before whizzing in the direction of the bathroom and beeping an order at the door. Within, Kit finds several pairs of red slippers and more robot creatures vying for his attention. I just want to have a piss in peace, he thinks.
When he comes out, squirted in unreasonable places by jets of water and hot air, he sees Sol nuzzling up to Jonny Quiss in a way that is distinctly unfilial. He hears her saying something about the memories you form before you are three; what she remembers of him, her father. Feeling safe.
Kit feels the need for fresh air.
Standing in the street, wearing the pub’s outdoor rubber slippers, fervid water batters him from the skies; as if his bathroom experience has been a mere appetizer for the weather beyond. The world is used to tropical storms now; it’s hard to remember a time when they made front-page news. Still, a change from the drought he left in Tucson.
They’ll be back there soon enough, mission accomplished. Sol has found a father contending to be hers – and maybe that’s as good as the real thing, someone prepared to stand up and claim her as their own. He inhales the rain, wishes he had some weed.
An urban fox slinks past, carrying its brush like a flame in the wet street. It seems unnaturally large. Its tail in particular is enormous and bushy, as if concealing many within that one’s marvellous flourish. Kit moves to follow it, to get a closer look, in spite of the downpour bouncing large drops off the shining street. But as he steps out of the doorframe, the fox, startled, runs off, a blaze of red fur turning sharply left down the next alley.
He jumps; a hand on his shoulder. Sol, out of nowhere, is behind him.
‘Let’s go,’ she says, sliding her hand into his as she did when they were children. Even then it gave him an inexplicable thrill.
What has happened in there with that fat fuck? ‘Are you alright?’
She doesn’t answer. The rain eases without warning, as it began. Sol leads him away from the izakaya, along the road and then left down the alleyway where the fox had disappeared. The effects of the earthquake can still be seen here. Buildings lie in disarray, unloved and abandoned.
‘Where are we going?’ Kit asks her, aware of his heartbeat in strange places.
Again Sol ignores him. She looks flushed and somehow electric, taller.
His feet feel flat and unfleet, and he realises he is still wearing the jelly shoes.
Kit sees various signs outside the houses, lurid in pink and green, lying on their sides. They say:
REST (2h) ¥3,500~
These must be love hotels that no one has yet thought to restore. He had heard that even before the earthquake buildings lay abandoned throughout Japan. People liked to photograph these dilapidated ruins – old hospitals, theme parks, schools that had fallen into disrepair with the economic crash. A Japanese guest at the Tucson Grand had once shown Kit some of her own pictures. ‘Japan,’ she told him, ‘has always been on the front line in the war with nature.’ The earthquake must have brought more economic struggles, more modern ruins. But you wouldn’t know it if you weren’t right here.
The neon signs are all out. The street is barely lit but for the sudden moon, huge and full, ripping through grey-sodden layers of sky.
The moonlight catches the silver of a cage, a picture of a cat pinned to the wall above. But the door is open and the cat of this love hotel has run free. Behind it, a building: the door is hanging from its hinges and nature has started to reclaim it, a crop of moss spreading upwards through the dead neon.
Sol looks back at Kit and he follows her. He will always follow her.
Venetia Welby is a writer and journalist who has lived and worked on four continents. Her debut novel Mother of Darkness was published by Quartet in 2017 and her essays and short fiction have appeared in The London Magazine, Review 31 and anthologies Garden Among Fires and Trauma, among others. She lives in London with her husband, son and Bengal cat.
Dreamtime was published by Salt on 1 September 2021.
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