For the first time this year, which still seems new but is anything but, I put on my shorts to go for my walk yesterday. For once, I carried on north after I’d dropped a response to a wedding invitation into the post box by the small supermarket on the road to Wroxham. Further along that road, past the pub and the car dealership, and almost at the end of an old disused road now separated from a newer road by a line of trees, and after avoiding an old man who had his dog on a very long lead and who smiled at me, I discovered a gate to the left, a gate which led on to a huge wild field. I followed the ruts left by tractors until I reached a wheat field, followed the dried mud path along the edge of that until I got to a tarmac lane too narrow for cars, and, as I established later, blocked at both ends by gates. I followed this lane north, glad this time to be out of the city, away from forest, and in the open.
There’s something different out here. In the city, and even on Mousehold Heath, when I pass others, they either look away or straight ahead to avoid eye contact, leaving me no chance to greet them either with a smile or a few words. Out here, on this lane, I passed any number of people – a couple pushing a pram, two women runners, a lone old man, another old man with another dog, an elderly couple (she just getting out of her wheelchair to use it as a moving frame to support her walking, he obviously still so much in love with her he was straining to support her but restraining himself so she could take the steps on her own, and their dog impatient to run off), a woman whom I’d seen running earlier now strolling with her massive shock of black hair and her small black dog – and they all either smiled at me, or spoke to me, and not just a hello, but a question as to how I was and how wonderful a day it was for walking. It lightened me, made me feel even more alive, made me feel that I was real, and not just my imagination.
Do the characters in my books feel like this? Some days that they are just figments of my imagination, and, on other days, that they are real people, walking through real lives, experiencing real things? And on the days I’m not writing them – which applies more to those in The Mortality Code and those in as yet unwritten sequels to Tettig and Dead Men (although the first sequel is written just not published, and a third in my head but not yet on paper) and those in the under revision The Emperor The Practitioner And I, than to those in Aggie – do they wait around wondering where their lives are going, what lies ahead for them, and curse me for not paying them enough attention? I’ve always said that they’re constantly alive in my head, that not a second of any day passes without me reflecting on these people who appeared in my head at some point, and won’t ever leave. The trick now, and that’s where I need to manage more effectively any time remaining, is to get their lives fully onto paper so that they will stay living and breathing far past my finite life span. And that’s not a maudlin or morbid thought; it’s reality.
They’re watching me write this now, crowded around me, looking over both my shoulders, and nodding, encouraging me to make them even more real than they already are.
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 94
‘Then where do I belong?’ Anna says.
Zav starts towards her, stops himself.
‘That’s the question, isn’t it?’ Aggie says, murmurs something unintelligible to herself. ‘If that was in you, who put it there, and who stopped it working?’ She looks at Martin. ‘There’s still something you’re not telling us, isn’t there?’
‘A man must be able to have some secrets,’ Martin says.
‘Bullshit,’ she says. ‘You’re instrumental in this. You led Robert on with this.’ She picks up the lump of black plastic. ‘You may not have put a kill function in your versions, but you didn’t invent the damn things either, did you?’
Martin shakes his head. ‘Foreign technology. Someone offered it to us, so we took it.’
‘Who?’ Aggie says.
‘We don’t know,’ Robert says. ‘The offer came out of the ether, as it were, with some video of it working, and we took it.’
‘There must have been some sort of handover,’ Aggie says.
‘No.’ Martin’s face is rigid again. ‘It was all anonymous, just a dead drop, in East Europe. One exemplar, and the plans for it, and how to connect it.’
‘And the exemplar?’ Anna says. ‘Was it just a box or was it a box in a human?’
‘Just a box,’ Martin says, looks at Robert.
‘In a dead human,’ Robert says. ‘Not dead like the gentleman out there, though.’
‘East Europe?’ Anna says, face red. ‘That makes no sense at all. Why would Valentine steal modified East European tech when he’s a spy for Russia anyway?’
‘Perhaps it had nothing to do with his then masters,’ Aggie says, suddenly conscious again of her Polish accent. It all goes back to that snowy night, that near-death experience, that baby cut out of her womb, that blood everywhere from her stomach, those last breaths, that face, kindly then, before the torture began, the grey hair, the grey eyes, the strong wiry arms, the mentor’s voice, like somehow the sharp edges of their speech had been sanded down into something more rounded. Eyes wide open now, mouth opening and shutting, she stares at Anna, realisation alive. ‘No. That’s impossible.’
‘What?’ Anna says.
‘You and me,’ Aggie stammers. ‘Exemplars.’
‘We’re alive,’ Anna says.
‘Just.’ Aggie focuses on awareness of her body. Nothing. Nothing foreign inside her. She looked before. That private space inside her only she knows wouldn’t exist if she were controlled and tracked by someone, something else. ‘The mentor.’ She mouthes it rather than says it out loud, and Anna understands her.
‘What is going on?’ Zav says.
‘A puzzle,’ Anna says. ‘Something weird. Someone we know but don’t know.’
‘Aggie’s puzzle,’ Robert says slowly. ‘The one she will only tell us about when she’s ready.’ He stares at her, smiles. ‘When all this is over.’
‘Why not now?’ Martin says, impatience and irritation on his face for once. ‘We’ve told them everything now. All our mistakes. We should kill them really.’
‘You’re overreacting again, my friend,’ Robert says. ‘And her puzzle is actually irrelevant to our situation now. And we haven’t told them everything. Like that the dead exemplar was your previous handler in Russia, like the fact that she was also your first wife, and that we never worked out how someone could have got to her who wasn’t in the pay of the Russians.’
Martin’s upper lip trembles. ‘That was not a story that was meant to be told.’
‘It’s history,’ Robert says. ‘And she was old anyway. And you never loved her.’
‘That is not the point.’
‘Where was this drop?’ Aggie says.
‘Warsaw,’ Martin says.