Cosmonauts Avenue

I first read the manuscript – the samizdat – on my only excursion to the Territory, part of an official engagement in which I’d been invited to act as interpreter to the Ambassador of the Outer Region. It was a rare opportunity to visit the notoriously secretive state. My diary from that period is due to be published later this year, although this is about another story entirely.

Much of the tour had been expected and routine. Few surprises. But the Ambassador had made a good impression, I think, and so had been granted more access than her opposite number might have been originally prepared to give. We were escorted literally everywhere; the only place I could say I was truly alone was in the bathroom, but even then, I’m not so sure. And don’t think our rooms weren’t under observation because I’m certain that they were.

But after the first week you could sense a thaw in the relationship between the two diplomats. They seemed more easygoing, more relaxed with each other. How much of that was constructed and how much of it was genuine is hard to say, but I was convinced. I don’t know. You have these two parties – these two people – who are politically, ethically, morally opposed. And yet, given the right conditions, if you spend enough time in a person’s company, some common ground will be found. It’s inevitable. The ambassador – our ambassador, that is – had a professional in public housing and the ambassador for the Territory seemed to share this interest. And you can make whatever judgements you like on what you’ve read about living conditions in the Territory – I’ve been there, have observed them and I know what I think – but honestly, I think the ambassador for the Territory took a sympathetic view, or what they thought was a sympathetic view. They weren’t quite slums, the buildings that I saw, but they weren’t far off; the overcrowding, the shared and overshared amenities…

But we’re getting away from the point, which is that – perhaps because of this mutual interest – the ambassador for the Territory took us on an unscheduled tour of one of the neighbourhoods. And the way that our ambassador casually accepted the invite, you’d think it was nothing out of the ordinary. Again, how much of that off-handedness was real is hard to say, only it illustrated for me further how they’d – I don’t know – bonded, perhaps. But we were taken on a tour of one of the neighbourhoods and it was as I’ve gone on record describing, although a more detailed account will be made in my diary from the period, which – as I say – will be published later this year.

Now during this impromptu diversion, there was a period of time – I’d say a few hours – when I was sort of just left alone. Astonishing when you think about it, although maybe I was being observed, it’s just that I didn’t feel it, unlike the sensation I’d had at every other stage of the visit. The ambassadors had gone into a restaurant. It was crowded and there wasn’t enough room for me to join them, but it also felt like this was a just-them kind of moment because as I hovered around – I was the official interpreter, remember – they both waved me away as if to say, We’ve got this. I don’t know, neither spoke the other’s language to any great degree, but maybe it was enough. And so I took myself off for my own private tour of the district.

I explored the streets, the markets, the shops. A few people stared at me but no-one seemed surprised, so possibly the impromptu visit hadn’t been that impromptu. However, no-one was really interested in speaking, or else they were just being careful. But at a market stall I got talking to one of the traders – he introduced himself as X – who was more gregarious than the others. I chatted to him as he worked, about innocuous, quotidian things, until he found out I was a poet as well as an interpreter. He told me he’d inherited the stall from his father, but had always wanted to be a writer. I told him I was a writer because my mother was, but as a teenager I’d wanted to be a nurse. We talked about our favourite authors, only neither had read the other’s. The only writers we were both familiar with were Stogner and Mierscheid and there – didn’t I say? – we found common ground. He invited me to his home for dinner. I wasn’t certain how safe it was, but thought also how likely was this to happen again and so I accepted.

I met X’s family; his wife and three children and they welcomed me without question. We gathered around a table barely big enough for two, but somehow managed and made polite small talk in-between mouthfuls. After the table was cleared, X’s wife ushered their children away to the only other room I could see – presumably a bedroom – leaving us alone, where we sat opposite each other, the momentum of conversation having subsided, smiling awkwardly. Eventually, sheepishly and – understandably – anxiously, he asked if I would like to read one of his stories. It wasn’t much, he said, but he’d love to have the opinion of “a real writer,” because – for obvious reasons – he wasn’t able to show anyone else, not even his wife.

It was an awkward moment, because who was I to say if his writing was any good or not? Plus, what if it was terrible; what would I say? But I’ll spare you all that in order to say that the story I read was very good. I was glad to be able to say as much and also that he should be proud of it. And I’ll spare you also the details of X’s gratitude, except to say he became flustered with joy and then – before I could even grasp what was happening – he produced a bundle of papers from a bamboo binder, which disguised what they were I suppose, and asked me to take them, to show them to my editor and to have them published, to show the world what life was really like in the Territory, because he knew enough to understand that what the rest of the world was told was not the truth. His stories, he said, as he pressed the bundle into my arms, were true. His stories were the truth.

He ushered me out of the house before I could say anything and as I stumbled into the street, I stuffed the bundle into the waistband of my trousers. I didn’t get to say goodbye to his family – I barely said goodbye to him – and retraced my steps through the streets, lost in a daze of anxiety as the absolute seriousness of what he had asked me to do–what I was then currently doing: smuggling propaganda out of the Territory–engulfed me in a slow and sickening haze. Everybody I passed suspected me; everyone was an informer or an agent. I don’t know how I remained upright. Eventually I found the restaurant, where the ambassadors were just leaving, in a relaxed and celebratory mood entirely at odds with my own. We were taken back to our hotel, where we were supposed to be attending a formal meal later – our last in the Territory – before an early morning journey home, but I didn’t dare leave my room for fear of it being searched. Instead, I invented an illness, offering profound apologies for being unable to attend. Our ambassador didn’t mind. I think she was still flushed from the successful cordiality of the afternoon and said she’d manage just fine, but that still meant enduring a long and paranoid evening alone in my room – with X’s stories – waiting for an ominous knock at my door, which I imagined as a sort of portentous rap-arap-arap, after which I’d be taken away, presumably along with X.

But none of that happened of course. I slit open the lining of my suitcase and concealed the papers in there and so further endured the most terrifying border crossing, although ultimately without incident. Even then, for about a week back home I was paranoid and constantly on vigil. I hid X’s stories inside a binder of documents for appliances in my home and then – taking great care that I wasn’t followed – rented a safety deposit box at some expense and kept them there. Over a period of several months I visited the repository and, making use of a private room, would spend an hour or two slowly translating the first of X’s stories. Until I’d finished, I told no-one of what I was doing and after which I presented the original manuscript to my editor, along with the translation. And I’ll spare you the details of that meeting plus subsequent ones, but to say that she was enthused about the collection’s potential from the get-go and–I think, although you’d have to ask her for sure–had decided to buy the manuscript after that first reading.

And so here is that first story I read: the only known work of translated, uncensored fiction from the Territory. The usual arguments as to the accuracy and fidelity of any translation apply (original formatting and punctuation has been honoured where possible) but the intention is for the full collection to be published as a parallel, duolingual edition, so that readers familiar with both languages can make up their own minds. Early critics have proposed that security at the Territory’s borders is so thorough and surveillance so constant that the likelihood of any anti-Territorial materials making it out of the state is so remote as to be impossible. I can only offer my account as proof. Comments have also been made to the effect that suppression of the arts in the Territory is so all-encompassing as to have a similar reductory effect. My response to this contention is that even in the dark, art–like life–finds a way.

 As for X, I can’t tell you much beyond what’s already been said, but any profits that would usually go to the author will be–in this instance–directed to a private account and reserved for him in the event that he is ever able to make use of it. Tentative, careful enquiries have already been made in an effort to locate X, but it will be appreciated how circumspect these such enquiries must be.

Finally, and to be honest, the truth of how I came across the manuscript isn’t exactly how I’ve outlined above because the truth would put X in a great deal of danger. However, the truth does have a recognisable parallel to that outline. To paraphrase another writer, the abstract of what I told you is real: all that’s false are the circumstances, the time and one or two proper names.


K. woke up to the sound of an ominous drumming on her door   It was barely light out and the family was wholly asleep   Her husband groaned a little in response but nothing more    She slid out of bed and put on her boots and her housecoat   The clock in the dimlight through the curtain showed six   There was only one lock on the door but it was a heavy crossbolt installed by her brother :: grant him rest   The drumming had continued with military precision and pacing: rap || arap || arap   She had already picked up the rhythm by the time she pulled the bolt and peeked through the gap   Behind the door was the party official who had been to see them that time :: the one who had been surprisingly kind in respect of their late payments and took only the smallest of bribes when it came to repayment    But they had no further outstanding dues and what did the party official need with three strong assistants anyway ?   K. addressed herself to the internal and attained a kind of composure    Nothing to worry about of course :: but unless :: but then no :: but unless

« May we talk ? » the party official inquired

Of course » said K. « But the time :: the hour    It/s very early    My husband :: my children are in bed »
« We understand » said the official « We can conduct our business out here if you/d prefer »

K. was unsure    She did not want to disturb the household :: although if any of her neighbours were to see But as it was early :: she took the risk   

« What is it you/d like to talk about ?   We/ve met before I think »

« That/s correct » said the official « That incident has been resolved    What we/d like to talk about is a different matter    A new investigation »

Matters and investigations    Was there a difference :: K. wondered ?

« Before we begin » she said :: « can I offer you and your assistants something to eat    To drink    Tea :: perhaps ? »

« Appreciated :: but unnecessary » said the official    « We/re here to discuss a visitor you had here last year »

«A visitor ? » said K. «Well :: we don/t get so many of those    Neighbours :: family    

Which would you like to discuss ? »

« Neither » said the official «Not family and hopefully not a friend    You recall  the visit of the Ambassador last year ? »

K. remembered it well because the Ambassador and his extra\Territorial guest had visited a restaurant in their district and it had been taken as a sign of great honour and recognition    Residence applications to the district had quadrupled :: according to her husband :: who was a Senior Administrative Clerk attached to the Tenancy Unit    Had they not had this sort of honour themselves || a household with ties to a local branch of the Municipal Service || they might have been relocated to one of the outer districts to make room for more respectable residents    As it was :: they were being considered for an improvement grant as a reward for her husband/s good service    Perhaps this was what the official had come to discuss    But :: no ∴   Not at this time of day   

« Yes :: of course » she said   

« And you recall also another visit ?   To your home ?   By a registered alien ? »

He meant the interpreter :: K. thought    Who had spoken to her and bought some items from the stall and with whom she had gotten on surprisingly well    They had talked about {Mierscheid} and {Stogner} and K. had even told her about her own stories  : the ones she wrote in the evenings and in secret when her husband was out :: because to tell him would be to implicate him and as much as she loved him :: it was not possible to say how a person || any person || might react to such a revelation    He might support her or he might denounce her    Or || more reasonably || he might say that she was putting the children at risk as much as herself and instruct her to destroy them and that did not bear thinking about   

She was putting them all at risk :: of course :: but all risks considered she had found that once she had started writing :: she couldn/t stop    It was like an uncorked bottle of ink that could not be corked back up    Ever since giving birth to her first child :: she had been unable to sleep when the baby slept    And so :: she began to write    Doggerel mostly :: and simple lyrics :: tributes to the Territory :: the sort of stuff she would not get into trouble for were anyone to find out    But she soon tired of that and :: finding that no suspicions were aroused by her secretive scribblings and that her husband never checked the cubby in which she hid them :: began instead to write about the hardships they as a family often faced and the daily unfairnesses she felt: the requirement to present a constantly upbeat and perfect front as a consequence of her husband/s position and the pressure :: mostly on her :: to maintain this façade in front of her neighbours and friends    The demand to feed a family of four on not || always sufficient means and the accumulating paradox that to admit to not having enough would be a slight on her husband/s performance as the breadwinner and head of the household :: which would threaten his position at work :: which might cause him to be demoted or even lose his job :: which meant less means by which to support her family :: and so on… It was a release :: became a relief to her :: and yet also a source of frustration because there was no || one to whom she could show it :: no || one who she could take into her confidence: not her husband :: her sister or her parents :: both of whom were proud :: but strict :: supportive :: but traditional    And so :: until the interpreter arrived :: they went unread by anyone but herself   

But then she was there :: this woman :: who had seen her own words published and read by countless <thousands ? millions ? > others    What it would be to share even a fraction of that feeling || and with a kindred spirit to boot    So she/d invited the interpreter to dinner :: a reckless and ill || thought out offer that upset her husband :: who went out without a word after a dinner during which he spoke barely a word and pointedly refused to attend to the children :: so that K. was unable to give their guest her full attention    It was embarrassing :: but the interpreter either did not notice or did not care :: and this only contributed to K./s feelings of intimacy between the two of them :: so much that she felt emboldened enough to pull out her papers from the cubby and show them || show them off || to the interpreter :: knowing that she understood enough to appreciate what writing her little samizdats :: as she called them :: meant in terms of personal and familial risk    The interpreter had been kind :: she had thought :: overgenerous even :: in her praise of K./s efforts: her most recent story and the most autobiographical :: about a downtrodden housewife who keeps a secret journal :: only for said journal to be discovered by the authorities :: leading to the decline of her family and her own incarceration :: although not before she is able to make public her pointed objections about the life she is forced to live and the way she is expected to be   

Not wishing the interpreter to think she had invited her over simply to boast :: she returned the papers to the cubby :: making a point of pride of showing where she kept them || under a loose drawer of the bureau || and treated the interpreter to a tour of their small yard :: the envy of the neighbourhood :: not all of whose homes had yard space allocated :: and which was also the site of hers and her husband/s carefully curated rockery which they worked on together every Sunday    The interpreter was polite :: but less enthused about the rockery than the story :: which K. took as a sign of sincerity    The children had woken up then and it had been necessary to leave her guest in order to attend to them    The interpreter had waited for her to settle the children in order to say goodbye to and to wish her well in her literary life    That was the phrase she had used and it had stuck with K. ever since   

But it was a life gone over before it had really begun    Her husband had come home drunk and relations between them were sour for weeks after    He had spent his money in one go and could not afford to go out until the next payday :: so that when she might usually have the house to herself in the evenings once the children were in bed :: they were cooped up together with nothing to do but watch television or listen to the radio || neither of which channels they could agree on || or else go outside into the yard and smoke and contemplate the rockery   

That first evening :: when her husband finally went out again :: K. hurriedly put the children to bed and went straight to the cubby :: desperate to unleash :: torrentially :: the frustrations that had been building up over the weeks    But when she opened the bureau drawer and lifted its loose bottom :: her papers were not there    She took the drawer out :: removed its contents methodically before replacing them with just as much care    She did this several times :: with the other drawers too :: knowing all the while that she had not made a mistake and that the papers were simply not there    She looked elsewhere :: fruitlessly :: pointlessly :: knowing that they had gone :: that her husband had found them and destroyed them :: for his safety and for hers    That evening she sat in the yard :: smoking and contemplating the rockery    Her husband said nothing of the samizdats and so neither did she    She had been given a chance :: K. thought :: a reprieve :: and she resigned herself to accepting it   

All of this cycled through K.  /s head in the brief moments between the party official asking about the translator/s visit and her reply :: the sort of impossible thing || the speed of her thoughts || she might once have written a poem about :: but

« You mean the Ambassador/s interpreter    Yes :: I remember    She visited my stall and then came and ate with us »

The official frowned :: as though he had been expecting a different response    He shifted position before stepping aside    K. looked at him :: perplexed   

« Please » the official said    He gestured to the back seat of the car :: the door to which was opened by one of his assistants   

« But my husband    My children    What/s this about ?   Can/t we talk here ?   I/ve yet to make breakfast »

But the official was resolute and K. knew enough not to quarrel    She wrapped her housecoat tight and got into the car :: already defeated :: although for what reason she could not say    The official and his assistants got inside the car too and drove noisily away :: alerting the neighbours to their visit and inspiring all sorts of gossip that would sustain them for days :: even weeks    Meanwhile the door to K./s home remained open and a chill wandered in :: rousing the children and partially her husband :: who rolled around the bed before drifting back to sleep :: comforted by the knowledge it was a Sunday :: that there was no need to get up anytime and that his wife would soon come in with the news that breakfast was ready   

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