Friday, May 20, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter X - New Old Chica

Wait a minute, wasn't New Chicago a starport in one of the Ole Doc Methuselah stories?  Could this be a prequel, taking place before the advent of faster-than-light engines and the dystopian regime of the Universal Medical Society?  Is Still-Relatively-Young Doc Methuselah working in a hidden lab somewhere, perfecting his cure for mortality and other medical wonders that he will refuse to share with the rest of the galaxy?

Anyway, let's have our dramatic and tragic chapter.  Corday walks between rows of crummy shacks, accompanied by a professional light bearer who jabbers on about how successful he is, a captain of industry able to afford a six-by-six shack nearby in Brightpark, and how things are really looking up for this fellow republicanites - why, unemployment is below thirty percent these days!  Corday boggles at this for a moment since he remembers only ten percent of people being out of work, but stays on track and has his guide take him to the Montgraine residence, the old mansion of Sunnylawn.

They find it, of course.  The government has divided up the lot so the grounds are now home to a number of huts barely bigger than dog houses, but the old barn is still there, as is the mansion itself, and Miss Cerita Montgraine's name is right there by the door!  Corday pays the professional light bearer generously and rings the bell.  He waits a bit, adjusts his clothes, and finally takes off his white jacket, a relic of a class war he managed to miss and which has completely failed to get him into trouble despite other characters making a big deal of it.  He rings the bell again, determinedly not being worried.

Chica.  Well, he'd have to do some fast explaining at being gone so long.  And he'd be very well braced against seeing her older than he had really expected.  Make her as old as could be.  That was all right.  It was his fault

Jocelyn's fault.

and they could tie something together and make a life of it.  What if she was even forty-five or fifty.  That was all right.  A woman needed some age to take proper care of a man.  Who had said that?  Queen?  Funny old Queen.

Said that last chapter too.  But it's probably the character repeating himself and not the author, at least in this case.

And he'd been up there where the stars were shining and he'd thought he'd never get back.  What an entire fool he was.  Jocelyn was right.  He was a fool.  He figured he'd never get back and here it was right on the bell, "Miss Cerita Montgraine."  And how he'd watched that speed dial!

Oh, and this is all one rambling paragraph, but again, it works in this case.

The door eventually opens a bit and a "sad-faced little dwarf of a man" tells Corday to scram, but our hero puts a foot in and explains that he's a very old friend who means no harm and is here to see Miss Chica, who will surely know him on sight.  The dwarf is skeptical, but lets Corday inside to the back of a house, and announces through a "panel" that Miss Chica has a gentleman caller.  Then he asks if she's up.

A thin little voice answered him. "I'm awake, Saib. I'm not in bed, am I? Of course I'm awake. I'm dressed so I'm not in bed."

"Gentleman to-"

"Here, let me!" said Alan, and thrust the panel wide.

Aaaand paragraph break.  For drama.

He was not certain what he saw, after the first glance.  Afterwards he could not recall where she had sat or how she had looked.

There was a mantle with some crockery on it, some overcrowded tables with China dogs and horses on them, several heavy chairs and a very narrow, covered bed.

"Is it going to rain?  All day long I have felt it was going to rain.  It isn't raining, is it?"

The three pages or so that follow are pages I can't much complain about.  This may be the one chapter that really works, that effectively get its point across.  We are never actually told what Chica looks like, but it most certainly wasn't what Corday was expecting even in his most buried fears, because the guy is so shocked that it affects the narrative - we no longer hear his thoughts, only get brief mentions that he sat down at one point, or stood up at another.  True, other Hubbard heroes have been similarly closed to us, but in this case it seems an artistic choice rather than a failure on the author's part.  A page ago we could hear Corday's excited jumble of thoughts as he daydreamed about how everything was going to work out after all, now his mind has gone blank after being confronted by the damning evidence from his eyes and ears.  And we don't really need to be told just how old Chica is since her dialogue and actions make it clear, plus this leaves our minds free to imagine some truly decrepit old hag.

"I was just about to have tea," she said.  "Saib, bring in the tea things and serve the gentleman.  I know I am dreadfully impolite not to be more hospitable but ever since my husband died I have kept alone pretty much you see.  You knew him?  A fine man.  So strong and handsome.  And such a way with him.  He was an engineer-surveyor and when he came back we were married.  You'd have liked him.  I don't see very well, but you look young.  Are you young, sir?  Excuse an inquisitive old lady, but perhaps you knew one of our sons in school.  Ah, there's the tea.  You'll have one lump or two?"

Saib put down the tray.  It was a barren tray, a heel of bread, a tiny pat of butter and a teapot.  She poured shakily and sought to place his cub beside him.  Saib quickly assisted her an instant before disaster.

"Heavens, you'd think I couldn't do a thing," she said.  "But you were telling me about one of my sons.  Was it Raymond?  What a good boy he is.  Writes me every week.  You do think he's handsome, don't you?"

Saib gently tries to clarify that the visitor is a Mr. Corday, and Chica is confused for a moment before deciding he's talking about her son young Alan, that rascal who will surely settle down someday.  Yep, some day all her sons will make their father proud.

Alan was standing, tearing at his cap.

"Oh, do you have to go so soon?  And it's such good tea tonight.  Real tea, but Saib is such a dear child.  Can't you stay until Alan returns?  Until Alan returns?  Until Alan returns?"

Okay, I will deduct a few points for a character's brain skipping like a broken record.  But this chapter still earns a passing grade.

Chica wishes her visitor a "good-by" though, nice of her, and tells her servant to bring the car around so young Alan's friend doesn't get soaked.  On the way to the door Saib explains - well, he actually did some of this earlier but I'm going to lump the explanation here - anyway, Miss Chica managed to survive that war against the whites thanks to an amnesty on account of her mental problems, while he himself was a driver for the old regime but was kept around so he could tend to the stables, and wound up helping a doctor look after the old bat.  He can only wonder what drove Miss Chica bonkers and figures it must have been the revolution, and Saib confirms that she never married and her sons exist only in her mind.  Corday says nothing, thinks nothing, but hands over all his money, which Saib promises to use to help Chica pass her remaining years in comfort - she's eighty, after all, so she probably doesn't have much time left.  Saib's questions about where Corday came from or got the money go unanswered.

Sadly, the mind can't flee from the truth forever...  Okay, that statement is more dramatic than accurate - yes, your brain can go on vacation from reality indefinitely, as seen with Miss Chica.  But we're on page 96 of 157 so we need Corday functional.

Alan, two hours later, found himself walking in the rain she had feared.  It was a heavy rain and it soaked his white jacket through and through.

He stood for moments and looked at the lowering sky, gray in the lights of the town.

She had said she thought it would rain.

Again, this would be a stupid statement to end the chapter on, but it accurately reflects our protagonist's mental state, so it works.

So there you have it, the shocking revelation that Corday has been gone for nearly six decades and everything about his old life has been destroyed.  Hopefully the impact of this revelation justified the author taking care that our viewpoint character was never so gauche as to just ask someone for the day's date, though you could say that it was the character continuing to lie to himself to avoid any information that might threaten his fantasy of a happy ending.

And now?  Back on the spaceship, of course.  Where else could Corday go to try and build a new life for himself?  It's either New Chicago or go gallivanting between stars for centuries sidereal time.  What's he gonna go, run off to Nuevo Argentina to hang out with the other political exiles?

Back to Chapter IX 

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