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Kill the Mall

The requirements of the residency were this: 50% of the time I was meant to be “engaging the public” and the other 50% “making work.” Also, every week I was obliged to submit a Progress Report, culminating with a Final Report upon the termination of the residency, at which point the work I’d been making was also to be completed. How I was meant to be “engaging the public” was not specified. Nor was the type of “work” I was meant to be “making.” And since I’d no idea how to go about “engaging the public” or “making work,” it seemed impossible to gauge my progress, let alone craft reports on such a thing. How would it all end? In disgrace.

So on the first day of the residency a sort of pre-emptive humiliation tortured my spirits as I piloted my bicycle across town to the mall, which sprawled at the edge of the suburbs like the last standing outpost of some lost civilization. My application had been accepted via a simple one-page letter that outlined the preceding requirements and a date I was to show up and a date I was to leave. In addition to a small rucksack of clothing and hygiene equipment, this letter, tucked into my shirt pocket for safekeeping, was the only personal item I brought that morning. It was, after all, my ticket inside.

After chaining my bicycle to a conveniently located rack, I was greeted at the south entrance by the mall’s caretaker, a woman named K. Sohail, per her nametag, who wore a beige uniform, a peaked cap, a monstrous ring of keys on her hip, and a perturbed expression, as if I’d interrupted something significant, or at least habitual. It suggested that my presence was, immediately, a nuisance. With an apologetic wince I pressed my Acceptance Letter to the glass and waited for K. Sohail to give it a once-over before she unlocked the door and permitted me inside.

Following a brisk, wordless handshake, with the squeak of her sneakers and the jingle of her keys echoing down the empty halls, K. Sohail led me to a store retrofitted with a small bathroom and a sleeping nook tucked behind a screen. She gestured vaguely toward a desk at which, I assumed, I was expected to produce the alleged work that would comprise 50% of my time; “engaging the public” would apparently happen out in the mall, among the masses.

Even in the abstract, “engaging the public” was a source of distress: I’m at my best at a remove, naturally more observer than mingler, and not much for small talk. Socially, I often sense that I’m disappointing people. But now, confronted with the very spaces in which I was meant to be fraternizing, the impending mortifications were all too vivid. I could think of nothing more dreadful than stalking the mall, arresting shoppers mid-purchase to engage in that brand of casual banter which, as I understood it, confers neither complete disinterest nor alarmingly intimate confession, but a generically moderate politesse that terrifies no one, and in fact somehow promotes camaraderie and goodwill. Such a thing requires an interpersonal dexterity, and perhaps personal dexterity as well, that, then as now, I’ve never been able to achieve. So I could predict the mall’s patrons fleeing my “engagements” with disquiet—and possibly panic.

Acceptance Letter aside, it seemed unlikely that I was the right person for the job. In fact I could sense K. Sohail already sizing up my fraudulence, perhaps even forecasting the first travesty of a Progress Report she’d collect from me—and share in disbelief with her colleagues: Behold this buffoon! Did she have the power to terminate my residency? As always in moments of disgrace, in a sort of ingratiating mania I began to grovel. To not just acknowledge my inadequacies but to exploit them for pity.

I opened with some basic arithmetic.

Did the terms of the residency, I asked K. Sohail, not fail to account for time spent sleeping, eating and in the bathroom, activities that comprise about 40% of an average day, figuring eight hours for sleeping, an hour for eating and forty-five minutes for various ablutions and expulsions? Unless that 40% was meant to double as time spent “engaging the public”—if I was meant to be on display while, say, bathing—and “making work,” whatever that might entail. But if not, the residency allotted only 60% of my time to divide between “engaging the public” and “making work,” or 30%, then, each. Which was a far cry from the 50-50 split outlined in my Acceptance Letter, I told K. Sohail.

K. Sohail scratched her arm, glanced over her shoulder, straightened her belt.

Wasn’t it, I continued, gesticulating madly, a concern that I would be spending more time performing unsanctioned activities than either of the two requirements of the residency? What if this sort of lawless behaviour were grounds for disqualification, I proposed to K. Sohail. It was an invitation to admit that the entire arrangement was a farce, but also an appeal to her humanity: No, I hoped she’d say, don’t be silly, you’ll be fine; you are fine.

Instead she showed me her watch.

The mall opened at nine.

It was quarter to.

Then, in what could have been an act of obligatory hospitality or a slyly cruel attempt at further humiliation, exposing me to every inch of the corridors that I would imminently debase, K. Sohail offered to let me tag along on her morning rounds.

What to do but obey?

Her sneakers proclaiming authority with each squeak, my own loafers pattering wretchedly behind, we passed shuttered shops yet to open for the day’s trade: a jeweller; a plus-size clothier; a shoe store; a hairdresser replete with tri-colour pole. (Blood and bandages, I thought grimly.) In the centre of the mall was a handless clock that towered over a dried-up fountain; beyond it was the food court, but this we skirted to escalate to the mall’s second level. At the top of the escalators was a vitrine dominated by sunflowers pressing their fat heads to the glass—like prisoners watching us pass.

K. Sohail took me down a narrow corridor to her office, a closet-sized room with a desk and a chair and a sink and some cleaning supplies, including a mop standing upright in its bucket, and an entire wall of closed-circuit TVs. On one of these TVs was the space assigned to me for the residency. The view scanned left to right and back again. I’d not noticed a camera previously. As I watched, the image crackled and fizzed. K. Sohail rapped the set with her knuckles. For a moment, a strange, weblike threading drizzled over the screen, as if a spider were casting its net over the camera lens. But then the picture jumped and cleared, and my living quarters returned, static and empty.

I sensed the caretaker waiting. The tour appeared to be wrapping up. Yet the way she lingered suggested that something remained unfinished. A formal expression of gratitude? A blood oath? Payment? I’d brought no cash, only plastic. Would she “take a card”?

But then a new horror dawned on me: what if the appropriate closure to the tour, with the two of us packed into that snug little room, bodies close, was a bout of lovemaking? Perhaps right there, on the floor of K. Sohail’s office—“sealing the deal.”

I turned from the monitors, dreading that I might discover K. Sohail unfolding a cot in the corner of the room, unbuckling her belt, preparing to have me.

But she was already gone, squeaking down the hall to the service elevator.

I joined her as the car arrived with a bang. Using a leather strap, she hauled open the doors, which parted top to bottom like a mandible. In we climbed and descended. I noticed, apart from two buttons conventionally marked 2 (for the second floor) and G (for ground), a third button with no corresponding symbol, blank as a lozenge stuck to the steel panelling. Before I could ask K. Sohail where it led, she was heaving open the doors and leading me past a room heaped with garbage into the main thoroughfare, where the first few patrons were filtering in from outside.

The mall was open for business.

My residency had begun.

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Mina's Child

But where was the prince in the title? Abree wondered. He had introduced himself merely with a name. It would have showed ill-breeding to do otherwise, of course, at least in England. But it would force her to call him a mere "mister" or "professor," which might prove an embarrassment later.

"Please," she said, "Professor Florescu"--she gave a nervous smile and turned to her mother--"this is my mother, Mrs. Jonathan Harker. I am Abree Harker."

He seemed delighted for a moment, as though the names--such plain names compared to his own--had sounded like the most sublime poetry in his ears.

"Mrs. Harker," he said gratefully, it seemed, "and Miss Harker. I am so delighted to make your acquaintance."

Abree could not think of anything to say. Mother seemed likewise lost for words, and Professor Florescu looked on them both, smiling and patient, in no special hurry either to break off conversation or to offer anything that might serve for small talk. Abree thought of his title again and of his origins.

"You are, I believe, from Bulgaria, Professor?" It was a slightly dangerous subject. Bulgaria had been an enemy three years ago. But the country was far enough away from the English map, Abree thought, for the detail to be at least half forgotten, and Mother was never parochial when it came to such things. In 1914, both her parents had been enraged at the looters and vandals who'd ransacked London shops owned by Germans.

"I was born a Hungarian, Miss Harker, from the provinceof Wallachia. But, unlike those of Great Britain, our borders move often. So it can be confusing to us as well as to those of other countries. Now I am a Romanian."

"What a beautiful country you belong to, Professor Florescu," said Mother breathlessly. Abree guessed her to be in the throes of a powerful emotion, a memory perhaps. A glance to her side revealed that her eyes had misted over.

Professor Florescu's face showed smiling appreciation but also curiosity. Abree thought of a handsome dark animal, an otter perhaps, wanting to burrow through the water after a shining fish but cautious lest some unseen danger lurk beneath the depths.

Mother seemed lost, oblivious to the fact that her statement required some explanation. Abree supplied it for her.

"My mother and father, Professor, travelled in the region long before the war."

"Really?" Now his brown eyes widened in admiration as well as surprise. Yet, there was something else in his expression, something she'd first noticed when he heard their names. Some of the surprise, at least, was feigned. Abree couldn't swear to this, and was not certain where the instinct came from, except that the response was a little too polished, a touch too steady.

"Yes, Professor Florescu," said Mother, her voice still husky. "It was just over thirty years ago, quite the most memorable journey of our lives."

"A honeymoon perhaps?" he asked.

"Oh no," she said rather too quickly, "but an experience nevertheless, one we can never forget."

He looked at her, smiling steadily, waiting for more. But Mother was clearly not going to supply it. "And what brings you to London, Mr. Florescu? You are a professor, I gather?"

"I have the privilege of teaching history here, Mrs. Harker. I find there is so much energy of enquiry in young minds today. We have an extraordinary opportunity."

Abree felt a nudge and wondered whether Mother wanted them to move on. But a glance revealed that she had merely turned to Abree, a sad, sentimental smile upon her face. "You are so right, Mr. Florescu," said Mother. "We have such hope in our children, and there is such a responsibility placed upon their shoulders."

It occurred to Abree that Professor Florecsu must be older than she had thought him. He still did not look more than thirty-five, but the ease with which he and her mother had fallen into the nuance of codes and hidden meanings about young people suggested they recognized each other as generational peers. She searched for lines upon his face. His expression reflected her mother's sense of transience and loss, and there were indeed grooves leading down from the sides of his nose to the corners of his mouth, and spiders' web networks of lines radiating from his eyes, especially when he smiled plaintively as now.

It is often the case with men, Abree thought, that when they remain slim and keep their hair, they seem to retain their youth and vigour for decades. The qualities that delineate women's youth are, by contrast, too narrow to survive the years. This idea, real enough and true enough, made Abree despise herself. These were her parents' generation's judgments, not hers, and yet they were in her, like tumours. The pantomime horse came back into her mind. No one had put her in the back end of the costume. She had done it to herself. She was an imposter belonging to nineteenth-century complacency and inaction. She was woman preserved under glass. It was a mistake that she was living in this age. This age was a time of change. Change required courage, not just the kind of courage to make Father's eyebrow arch as she announced she would go to a decidedly non-militant lecture on women's suffrage, but something much more, something that required shattering the glass that surrounded her. Women just like her, daughters of solicitors or doctors, had nursed wounded soldiers and influenza patients. They chained themselves to the railings of public buildings and threw themselves before the King's horse while Abree was, for the most part, meekly waiting until she was thirty, when she might legally cast her vote.

Professor Florescu and Mother continued to talk while Abree drifted into her own thoughts. She felt like blaming all these failures on what had happened to Quincey, but she knew that wasn't it. Others had lost brothers, and husbands, and sons. So what was wrong with her? Mother glanced at her and smiled. She and Professor Florescu thought they were talking about her, but they weren't, not really. They were talking about people, men and women, who took their responsibilities seriously. They were talking about people like Helen.

At last, Mr. Florescu bowed again. Mother, ever resourceful, carried Father's card and often issued invitations on his behalf. She pressed this card into Professor Florescu's hand almost fondly. He bowed to them both again, looking delighted with his new acquaintanceship. Abree managed a smile, but she was worried. Mother seemed blind to any similarity between the Wallachian professor and her dead son. But perhaps Father would see it, and the door had been opened to the possibility, perhaps even a likelihood, of a meeting.

Mother was strangely silent when they returned home. Abree closed the front door as Mother took off her gloves. Only when Abree turned did she notice that Mother's fingers were trembling as she returned the garden gate key to its hook.

Jenny had appeared pale-cheeked and expressionless at the sound of the front door. She took Mother's scarf.

"We'll have tea in the drawing room, please," Mother told her.

Jenny gave a swift curtsey and ghosted off in the direction of the kitchen.

"You'll join me, won't you?" Mother asked Abree. Abree could think of no reason not to. Obviously, Keats and Whitman could wait a little longer. Perhaps they would wait forever.

In a few moments Abree was circling the drawing room, catching sight of the photo-less mantelpiece again, hearing the hollow tock of the grandfather clock. Mother sat in the centre of the settee. Abree took the chair opposite.

"A charming young man, didn't you think so?" Mother said. "Thank you for introducing him to me."

"I didn't know him before today," Abree said, "but it seemed silly to walk by without saying hello, considering the circumstances."

Mother smiled complacency. "You girls, you and Helen, you seem so modest, so shy, and yet you take life on your own terms."

Abree frowned.

"It must be so very liberating, not to have to wait for someone else to introduce you."

Abree couldn't think of anything to say. There seemed to be a criticism, as well as a compliment, somewhere in Mother's words.

Mother seemed to read her thoughts. "Or perhaps there was never anything to be liberated from. A change in the times, I suppose."

"We all need liberating, Mother," Abree said and wished she hadn't. It seemed pretentious and angry and she had no idea where it had sprung from. She knew her face must have coloured as she could feel the heat. "Anyway," she added, "I've never been to Wallachia."

This was even worse. She shrank into her chair while mother looked at her calmly. A smile played on Mother's lips.

The door opened and Jenny came in with the tea trolley.

She rubbed her hand down her pinny and seemed ready to serve, but Mother pre-empted her.

"We can see to the tea, thank you, Jenny," Mother said.

Jenny wheeled the trolley closer to Mother, then turned and slipped from the room.

Mother picked up the strainer and started to pour, her hand steady, almost artificially so. "I suppose that there are fewermen now, fewer young men I mean, and this is why your generation of women is thrust into the spotlight." She moved the spout from one cup to the other, the echo of hot tea on china still ringing through the room. She poured again.

"I suppose so," said Abree.

Mother's dark eyes caught Abree's as she finished pouring the second cup. "You take milk, don't you?"

"Yes, thank you." Abree collected her cup and sat down again.

"I went to Wallachia," Mother said in an unusually measured tone, "because your father and his friends had to go there, and I was safest with them. It may be hard for you to see now, but Abree, your father was, and is, a courageous man." Mother tilted her head, listening. "I do believe he's here. Ring for another cup, Abree dear."

There had indeed been a sudden change in the atmosphere of the room, a shift in the air. Abree heard a faint thud from the hallway.

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