REPLAY
by Ken Grimwood

 

NINE

They’d been in London less than a month when he met the girl who offered him the LSD; met her as she was coming out of the Chelsea Drugstore, in fact. They had a good laugh about that as he chatted her up over Campari and soda. Jeff said he’d gone down to get his prescription filled and got exactly what he wanted. She thought that was funny, though of course she didn’t catch the reference; the Stones wouldn’t record that song for another year.

Her name was Sylvia, she confided to him, but everybody called her Sylla, ‘like the singer, Cilia Black, y’know?’ Her mum and dad lived in Brighton (she made a face), but she was sharing a flat in South Kensington with two other birds, and had a job at Granny Takes a Trip, where she could get all her clothes at half price – like the blue vinyl mini-skirt and the yellow patterned stockings she was wearing now.

‘We’ve got just the closest gear there, y’know; lots closer than Countdown or Top Gear. Cathy McGowan shops there all the time, and Jean Shrimpton was in just yesterday.’

Jeff smiled and nodded, tuning out her mindless patter. It wasn’t her he was interested in, it was the drug; he had been for a long time, and hated to admit he’d always been afraid to try it. This girl seemed casual enough about it, hadn’t suffered any apparent ill effects (assuming she’d been born this vapid). He’d picked her up out of habit more than anything else, commenting on the new Animals album she had under her arm, and within five minutes she’d asked him if he wanted to drop some acid. Well, what the hell? Why not?

Back in the town house on Sloane Terrace, Sharla was asleep in bed with some guy she’d met last night at Dolly’s. Jeff closed the bedroom door, put on a Marianne Faithfull record at low volume in the living room, asked Sylla if she wanted another drink.

‘Not if we’re gonna do the acid,’ she said. ‘They don’t mix well, y’know?’

Jeff shrugged, poured himself another Scotch anyway. He needed the alcohol to relax, to ease his nervousness over taking the psychedelic. What could it hurt?

‘That your wife in the other room?’ Sylla asked.

‘No. Just a friend.’

‘She gonna mind me being here?’

Jeff shook his head and laughed. ‘Not a bit.’

Sylla grinned, tossed her straight brown hair out of her eyes. ‘I never … did it, y’know, with another bird around. Except my flat-mates, of course, and that’s just ’cause we don’t have that much room.’

‘Well, she’s my flat-mate, and it’s OK. There’s another bedroom downstairs. Would you feel more comfortable in there?’

She rummaged in the yellow vinyl purse whose material matched her skirt, its colour her stockings. ‘Let’s do the acid first, wait for it to come on. Then we can go downstairs.’

Jeff took the little purple-stained square of blotting paper she handed him, washed it down with the last of the whisky. Sylla wanted some orange juice with hers, so he fetched a container from the fridge.

‘How long does it take before you feel the effect?’ he asked.

‘Depends. D’you eat lunch today?’

‘No.’

‘’Bout half an hour, then,’ she said. ‘More or less.’

It was less. Within twenty minutes the walls had turned to rubber, had begun to recede and approach. Jeff waited for the visions he had expected to appear, but none did; instead, everything around him just seemed slightly twisted, indefinably askew, and sort of sparkly.

‘Y’feel it, luv?’ she asked.

‘It’s … not what I’d thought it would be like.’ His words came out distinctly but felt thick in his mouth. Sylla’s face was changing, flowing like hot wax; her lipstick and rouge now seemed obscenely garish, layers of red paint covering her flesh.

‘Fab, though, innit?’

Jeff closed his eyes and, yes, there were patterns there, circles within circles, interconnected by a complex, shimmering latticework. Wheels, mandalas: symbols of eternal cycles, of illusory change that merely led back to where the change had begun and would begin again …

‘Feel my stocking; feel that.’ Sylla placed his hand on her thigh, and the yellow patterned panty hose became a landscape of textures and ridges, lit by an alien sun; that sun, too, a part of the endless cycles of being, the –

Sylla giggled, pressed his hand between her legs. ‘Take me downstairs now, OK? Wait’ll you see what this feels like on acid.’

He complied, though he wanted only to lie back arid give his mind up to these recurring waves of quietude and acceptance. In the small bedroom downstairs Sylla undressed him, ran her red-tipped fingers over his body, leaving a trail of cool fire wherever they touched. She stepped out of her mini-skirt and stockings, pulled her thin blouse over her head, drew his mouth to her right nipple. He sucked it with more curiosity than desire, like an infant suddenly aware of its place in the chain of existence, an omniscient child seeing its own birth, death, rebirth.

Sylla guided him inside her, and he grew hard automatically. Her wet inner flesh was like something ancient, something protohuman; receptive yang to his vital yin, together the creators of these endlessly regenerating cycles, these –

Jeff opened his eyes and the girl’s face changed shape again. It had become Gretchen’s face. He was fucking Gretchen, fucking his daughter: she to whom he had given life, yet who had never been.

He withdrew from her with instant revulsion.

‘Awwrr!’ the girl cried in frustration and reached for his limp penis, stroking it. ‘C’mon, luv, c’mon!’

The waves within his mind no longer soothed; they battered his emotions with a vicious impact. Cycles, wheels … within that universal chain there was no place for him, no pattern that would fit his mutant existence out of time.

The girl parted her blood-red lips and bent to suck him. He pushed her face away towards the pulsing wall, tried to shut out what he had seen in her.

‘Mind if we join the party?’ Sharla stood in the open doorway, naked. Behind her was a skinny young man with long, straggly hair and a pitted face. Sylla frowned uncertainly at the newcomers, then relaxed and let fall the sheet she had pulled up to cover her breasts.

‘Might’s well,’ Sylla said. ‘Acid didn’t seem to agree with your mate, here.’

‘Acid?’ the young man said excitedly. ‘You got some with you?’

Sylla nodded, reached for the purse she’d brought downstairs.

‘Here, give us a couple hits, willya?’ he said. Then, to Sharla: ‘You ever fuck on acid? It’s tremendous!’

They were on the bed, all of them, Sharla stroking Sylla’s hair, Gretchen’s hair – or was it Linda doing that? – and then the stranger became Martin Bailey, blood from the self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head spewing across the sheets, soaking the naked bodies of Jeff’s wife and daughter, they were dead all of them dead except for him and he couldn’t die no matter how many times he died. He was the wheel; he was the cycle.

Sharla tapped her foot impatiently as they waited in the first class lounge at San Francisco International. Her face was ghostly pale, after the latest mode, framed in the sleek straightness of her black hair. Her eyebrows were bleached to near-invisibility, her lipstick like a streak of chalk. The crazily zebra-patterned op-art print dress and white tights she wore completed the utter lack of colour.

‘How much longer now?’ she asked curtly.

Jeff glanced at his watch. ‘Should be boarding any minute.’

‘And then how long till we get there?’

‘It’s a four-and-a-half-hour flight.’ He sighed. ‘We’ve been through this before.’

‘I don’t know why we’re doing this, anyway. I thought you were sick of the goddamned tropics. That’s exactly what you said before we left Brazil. Why do we have to go to Hawaii all of a sudden?’

‘I want some quiet time in the sun, nobody else around for a change. I want some time to think, OK? And we’ve been through this before, too.’

She shot him a cynical look. ‘Yeah, well, you just think you’ve been through everything before, don’t you?’

He stared back at her, incredulous. ‘What do you mean by that?’

‘All that crap about living your life over again, all that reincarnation shit or whatever.’

Jeff turned in the uncomfortable seat, grasped her tightly by the wrist. ‘Where did you hear anything like that? I never –’

‘Let go of me,’ she said, shaking her hand loose from his. ‘Jesus Christ, you can’t get it up for one little dolly bird, you freak out on acid, and all of a sudden you want to run away, you start grabbing at me –’

‘Shut up, Sharla. Just tell me what you heard, and where.’

‘Mireille told me all about it last year. Said you tried to lay some kind of mystical trip on her, told her you’d died and come back again. What a crock!’

The revelation struck Jeff with almost physical force. Of all the people he had known in any of his lives, there’d been some sense of empathy and understanding in Mireille alone that had led him to share his secret with her. He’d thought she wouldn’t make judgements about what he told her, would keep it as private as it must be kept …

‘Why –’ His voice cracked. ‘Why did she tell you?’

‘’Cause she thought it was funny. We all did; everybody we knew in Paris was laughing behind your back for months.’

He put his head in his hands, trying to absorb the implication of what she was telling him. ‘I trusted Mireille,’ he said softly.

Sharla snorted with derision. ‘Right, your special little girlfriend, uh-huh. I made it with her first, you know; who do you think told her to go hop in bed with you, get you out of that stupid moody funk you were in half the time? I was getting sick of you. I just wanted to have a good time and get laid. Mireille would have fucked a goddamn monkey if Jean-Claude and I told her to, so we did. Weren’t you the lucky one?’

A woman’s disembodied voice called their flight. Jeff made his way to the gate in a stupor of disbelief, Sharla beside him, a tight, satisfied smile on her face. They found their seats on the right side of the still-new Boeing 707, just behind the wing. Neither spoke as they stowed their carry-on luggage and fastened their seat belts. A stewardess came by, offering candy and gum; Jeff mutely declined. Sharla took a piece of orange hard candy, sucked at it with relish.

‘Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome aboard Pan American World Airways Flight 843 from San Francisco to Honolulu. Your pilot today is Captain Charles Kimes, and with him in the cockpit are First Officer Fred Miller, Second Officer Max Webb, and Flight Engineer Fitch Robertson. We’ll be flying at an altitude of approximately …’

Jeff stared out of the window at the drab grey tarmac rolling slowly past.

In truth, he had no one to blame but himself. He had set the tone for this heedless, sybaritic replay when he’d gone to Las Vegas with the express purpose of seeking out Sharla.

‘… be serving lunch about thirty minutes after we take off. Please observe the “No Smoking” and the “Fasten Seat Belts” signs when they are lit, and for your comfort …’

What should he feel now, he wondered – anger, defeat? Neither emotion would do him any good; the damage had been done. Obviously, no one – not even Mireille – had believed what he’d told her in St Tropez. At least the deception that she and Sharla had perpetrated didn’t present any threat to him; all it really did was leave him more alone than before.

The jet sped down the runway, lifted gracefully. He glanced towards the front of the cabin. No movie screen, of course; TWA still had exclusive rights to in-flight motion pictures. Too bad. He would have welcomed the distraction.

Jeff looked out of the window as the jet climbed over the busy Bayshore Freeway. He should have brought along a book. Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby had just been published; he wouldn’t have minded rereading –

The big plane shuddered heavily, rocked by a dull explosion. As Jeff watched in horror, the right outboard engine tore loose from its mounting and ripped a jagged hole in the wing as it fell away towards the city beneath them. Kerosene spurted from the wing-tip tank, then burst into a curling white flame that spat shards of molten metal.

‘Look, the wing is on fire!’ someone behind him shouted. The cabin filled with screams and the wails of children.

The outer third of the burning wing fell off, and the plane yawed crazily to the right. Jeff saw homes nestled in the pass between the hills, then the blue water of the Pacific, not more than a thousand feet below.

Sharla clutched at his left hand. He squeezed hers back, rancour and regret forgotten in the face of this appalling moment.

Only two years into this wasted replay, he thought with dread; would he return from a death so early, so violent? For all he’d cursed his repeated lives, he desperately wished now for life to continue.

The plane shook again, dipped further towards the right. The Golden Gate Bridge came into view, its towers shockingly close.

‘We’re going to hit it,’ Sharla whispered urgently. ‘We’re going to hit the bridge!’

‘No,’ Jeff rasped out. ‘We’re still more or less level. We haven’t dropped much since the engine went. We’ll miss the bridge, anyway.’

‘This is Captain Kimes,’ a studiedly calm voice said. ‘We have a minor problem, ladies and gentlemen … Well, maybe it’s not so minor.’

They were limping back over land now, back towards the hills and high rises of San Francisco.

‘We’re gonna try to – We’re gonna head for Travis Air Force Base – that’s about forty miles – because they’ve got a nice, long runway there we can use, longer than anything at San Francisco International. I’m gonna be pretty busy up here, so just settle down and I’ll put Second Officer Webb on to tell you what you need to know about the landing.’

‘He doesn’t think we can make it,’ Sharla wailed. ‘We’re going to crash, I know we are!’

‘Keep quiet,’ Jeff told her. ‘Those kids across the aisle can hear you.’

‘This is Second Officer Max Webb,’ said the new voice from the tinny speakers. ‘We’ll be making an emergency landing at Travis in about ten minutes, so …’

Sharla began to whimper, and Jeff held her hand more tightly.

‘… If we use the chutes, please stay calm. Remember, you will sit down to go out the chute. Don’t panic. When we do land, and if it is a rough landing – which is a possibility – please lean forward in your seats. You grab your ankles and stay down, or put your arms under your knees. Move as far forward as you possibly can. Do not move until we tell you what we’re going to do …’

The plane was losing altitude fast. As they approached the broad expanse of the military base, Jeff could see fire equipment and ambulances lining the longest of the crisscrossing, empty runways.

They began a long, looping circle, just a few hundred feet above the Air Force barracks and hangars. Jeff heard the wheels emerge in jerky fits and starts from the plane’s undercarriage. The crew must be cranking them down manually, he thought. The explosion had probably wrecked the hydraulic system.

Sharla was mumbling something beside him; it sounded like she was praying. Jeff took a last look out of the window and saw a whirlwind kicking up dust at the near end of the runway they were aiming for. That could mean trouble; with the damage the plane had already sustained, a last-minute spate of turbulence might – Well, there was no point thinking about it. He pulled his hand away from Sharla’s, helped her get into a foetal position, then curled his own head between his knees, clutching his ankles.

The remaining engines gave a sudden burst of power, and the plane heaved to the left, then lurched back on course. Pilot must have been trying to avoid that whirlwind, must have –

The wheels touched, screeched against the tarmac, seemed to hold. For several agonizing seconds they raced along the runway. Then the engines roared again and they were slowing, stopping … they had landed.

The passengers burst into applause. Then the stewardesses threw open the emergency exits and everyone scrambled to slide down the escape chutes. The crippled plane reeked of jet fuel, and when he was outside Jeff could see the clear, flammable liquid pouring from cracks in the broken right wing. He pulled Sharla along with him and they ran from the plane.

Three hundred yards away they collapsed, exhausted, on a grassy strip between two runways. Military fire engines were dousing the 707 with white foam, and all around them people milled about in a state of shock.

‘Oh, Jeff,’ Sharla cried, putting her arms around his neck and her face against his shoulder. ‘Oh my God, I was so scared up there. I thought – I thought –’

He prised her arms loose, pushed her away, and stood up. The stark black-and-white makeup she wore was streaked with tears, her op-art dress stained from the escape chute, the smoke, the grass.

Jeff looked around, spotted one building off to the left that seemed to be a centre of activity, a hive of returning ambulances and asbestos-suited emergency personnel. He started walking in that direction, leaving Sharla where she lay weeping on the ground.

‘Jeff!’ she screamed after him. ‘You can’t leave me, not now! Not after that!’

Why not? he thought, started to say it aloud, then just kept on walking.

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