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Read a free extract from The Quickening by Talulah Riley

 

 

Read the opening of The Quickening by Talulah Riley

 

The Quickening is out 23rd June 2022

 

It starts like a love story, but don’t be fooled.

I was eighteen. Love was a concept that still carried weight when I met her. Like faith before it, love is an archaic abstraction now, a thought-relic from a more fanciful past.

That was before society distorted: The Change. Now, I am a gentleman. The clue is there: gentle,

as in benign, tame, trained. I am a functioning heterosexual man, a significant societal minority. I have a job, a good one: Executive Administrator at the Westminster Academy for Non-Gendered People – eunuch farms, we call them, amongst ourselves.

 

Every bad action I have ever taken, the awful things I have done, the compromises I have made, are as a direct result of falling in love . . .

 

It was 2015, and the house was indistinguishable from any other student digs: dilapidated, Edwardian and too far down the Cowley Road. Set back from the pavement behind a skinny privet hedge, with a chequered path of red and white quarry tiles to the open front door, a mess of overflowing plastic wheelie  bins was its most obvious feature. Back then the world was over-ridden by plastic: we were drowning in plastic, ingesting it in the water along with female hormones and animal antibiotics – plastic was swallowing us and we were swallowing plastic. From the bins came the stench of wet cardboard and rotting fruit. Things were ugly before The  Change.  The  garbage  was an excess of freedom, the waste symbolic of our indifference. We wasted our freedom.

I had gone out that evening in search of sex. I was

hunting. In the dark, the house seemed den-like and dangerous. The sounds and warmth, the moving shadows, I felt a thrill of opportunity as I crossed the threshold. The house-party was as far removed from a Christ Church bop as anything I could imagine, and there were girls everywhere, their bodies pressed close together.

Sanderson had invited me but was nowhere to be seen, and I didn’t recognise a single face as I pushed my way through to the drawing room. It was an awful house, sticky and unclean. Underfoot there were dirty beige carpet tiles like squares of furry pigskin, the walls were painted a dark aubergine, the colour of clotted blood, and the sparse furniture had been pushed back against the walls. The only ornament was a torn poster of the Waterhouse La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

I must’ve been nervous. Men were already being softly conditioned even at that time, before The Change, before she was directly involved. What I already felt was guilt, the unremitting anxiety of the perpetually pampered, a low-level cavilling against my very existence: I was too public-school, too white, too privileged, too male. I had red hair and was in my first term at Oxford.

The wine was shit; there were boxes of the stuff stacked in the kitchen. But clutching a single-use tumbler of something dark and acidic was somehow vital, life-giving. No one cared if I was there or not and I moved through the house like a ghost.

Sanderson found me back in the drawing room, grabbing me in a bear hug and slapping my back.

‘So glad you made it, dude,’ he said, laughing, his arm around a pretty blonde girl.

I raised my plastic cup and said cheers in a sarcastic way, and Sanderson laughed again.

‘You don’t come here for the booze, mate, you come here for the girls.’ He shook me by the shoulders in boisterous good humour and I took the opportun- ity to shove him back.

We’d been a year apart at school, in different houses, and now at Oxford we mostly passed time in the corridors of Exam Schools after morning lectures. I didn’t like him. But when he had mentioned this  house of good-looking  and  wildly  bohemian  girls  on the dodgy end of Cowley Road, I had allowed myself to get interested.

Suddenly, over Sanderson’s shoulder, I saw her. That moment of seeing Dana, that was when the universe fundamentally shifted. Back then she was just a particularly attractive girl with a detached, proprietorial air as she glanced around the room. Not exactly beautiful, certainly not sexy, but there was something about her that made it impossible to look away: she was mesmeric. Impossible then, for me to tell what she would become.

‘That’s Dana Mayer,’ said Sanderson’s girl, helpfully. ‘Fuck no,’ Sanderson said, ‘stay away from that.

She’s so opinionated. About everything.’

I kept enough of a distance so as to not be marked a creep, but followed Dana’s slender figure as she skimmed through the crowd and poured herself a glass of water from the kitchen tap. Her posture was remarkably straight, her skin luminously pale, and her angular jaw jutted proudly as she drank. She was dressed in vintage clothes: a long, flowing skirt and a high-necked shirt with a trench coat draped over her shoulders and a beanie styled like a beret. Her choices created a strange sense of rigid femininity, the full skirt offsetting the primness of the starched buttoned shirt and its pointed collar. She was other- worldly and untouchable, massively pretentious but undeniably attractive.

We made eye contact and I remember feeling physically shocked by the coldness of her gaze. Dana’s eyes were so dark it was impossible to distinguish her pupils from her irises, and these murky hollows communicated one fact: I was worthless. It felt like she despised me on sight. That no matter how hard I tried, I would never mean anything to her, and yet some terrible compulsion urged me to try – I wanted her more knowing this, not less. What was it, that yearning for something so out-of-reach, so distant, and fundamentally unloving? Why did it cause a swirling  feeling  in  my  stomach  and  my  balls,   a lurching, tugging desperation – a delicious agony? It was a challenge that could never be met: I was turned on by my own inadequacy.

I hoped she had come alone, but Dana settled in a

dark corner with a group of girlfriends. As she joined them, they each took her hand  in turn and raised  it to their lips, kissing it solemnly and without a trace of irony. It was an old-fashioned, courtly gesture and seemed inappropriate and weird. The ritual hinted at some wider significance and my brain was troubled by  it,  but  my  fluttering  response  to  sexual  cues, a lifting-then-falling motion in my stomach, was activated by watching them and I was broadly aroused.

They spoke of politics and other impenetrable things, building a wall of words designed to keep me out. I remembered Sanderson’s warning: she’s so opinionated, about everything. But Dana made no sound, her coterie were doing all the talking. Dana was silent, listening to the conversation with half- closed eyes as if in reverie. She looked like a Celtic priestess, her hair so dark and her skin so white, about to deliver some ancient rite.

When she did finally speak – I had edged close enough to the group so as to almost seem a part of it – her voice had a synaesthetic quality and my skin tingled as though she had brushed her fingertips across my neck. It hadn’t previously occurred to me that the voice was a powerful, musical tool. She spoke curiously slowly, unlike other girls of my acquaintance, who generally articulated streams of very fast consciousness. Her tone was surprising; there was nothing girlish or light about it, nothing apologetic. She didn’t finish her sentences with rising intonation, but with certainty and authority. To me it seemed like she only spoke to be sexual, the content was irrelevant. And then finally, miraculously, the group had disbanded and I was alone with her. We stood side- by-side, but she didn’t move away. The background noise rose in my consciousness and I became annoyed

with the loud conversations and bad music.

I took my cue from her outfit, the long skirt and romantic styling. No girl would dress like that if she was just out looking for a good time. I would need to offer more.

‘Parties like this make  you  want  to  fall  in  love  or run away, don’t they?’ I said, smiling at Dana conspiratorially.

‘Yes,’ came the somewhat encouraging reply.  ‘And you’re not going to fall in love with me . . .

are you?’

‘I am not.’

‘Then let’s run away,’ I said, and offered her my hand.

I must have possessed some level of confidence at that time, or I would never have been able to take such a risk. Approaching or speaking to an unknown girl is impossible now, horrific, in fact – wrong and punish- able. But before The Change, men and women existed collectively and with a level of unimaginable freedom; we had the opportunity to forge real friendships, the kind that could engender long-lasting, deep love. There were casual carnal encounters, mixed colleagues and co-workers, boyfriends and girlfriends, partners, lovers, admirers . . . a whole spectrum of affection was possible. Dana looked down at my outstretched hand and I half expected her to take it and kiss it. Instead, she gently placed her own small hand in mine, looked up at me and smiled. ‘I’ll run away with you. But only

if you promise to actually run.’

I nodded, weak with the victory, and true to my word turned to leave, pulling her along behind  me. She followed so close that as I frantically pushed my way through the other students I could feel her chest bumping against my back.

As soon as we were outside, with the cool night breeze pricking our faces and every exposed bit of skin, we started running. I led her towards my part of town, my flight compass instinctively attuned to its dreaming spires and the promise of heightening beauty. It was difficult to run, and laugh, and hold hands, and dodge obstacles, and avoid her voluminous skirt, but these hazards only added to the frisson of our singular performance. Eventually we gave in when painful, body-shuddering laughs and nearly-twisted ankles took precedence over the frolic.

We rode the night bus in respectful silence, her hair looking blacker in the blue fluorescence, her thoughts impossible to judge. I was terrified of breaking the spell, confounded by my own good fortune.

She looked tranquil and unmoved, as though she frequently ran away with strangers to unknown destin- ations. The bus was half full. The other passengers were mostly semi-drunk students returning home early, in defeat or victory – there was no middle ground at this time of night. I wanted to get her back to my room, but it would have to be done in increments.

Christ Church Meadow was the most romantic and geographically convenient spot I could think of taking her, short of simply dragging her inside the college and up to my chilly single bed. We sat on the cold grass, Dana settling her skirts neatly around her, drawing the trench coat tightly around  her  body and clasping it at her throat.

‘I’m Art. My name is Art,’ I clarified. It was annoying to waste time on introductions and banalities, but I wasn’t sure how else to begin. I wondered how much we would have  to talk before I could kiss her.

She told me her name and then said, ‘It’s late. It’s dark. There’s no one around. Aren’t you frightened of being out here alone with me?’

It was a provocative flirtation, because there was nothing frightening about the physical reality of her: she was slight and breakable. But as she implanted the idea in my mind, I found myself wary.

I decided to be serious. ‘Are you afraid of being out here with me?’ I asked it kindly, and with respect for any potential fears, because I knew I was a monster. What I wanted to do was to push her back on the grass and open the ridiculous trench coat, muddy the white shirt, rip the red beret from her head and touch the slender legs  hidden  beneath  her skirt.

‘Not at all. Female intuition is a very powerful thing.’

‘I couldn’t agree more.’

I leaned in to kiss her, but then she said, ‘Does the world seem right, to you?’ and I hastily shifted my body back to a neutral posture, knowing it had been too easy.

‘Has the world ever seemed right to anyone?’ ‘Oh, ad populum!’

This was what I had pictured when I imagined coming to Oxford: fascinating girls spitting Latin fallacies with barely disguised sexual frustration. But I would have preferred action to conversation. I had already decided that I loved her.

‘Look, obviously the world is fucked up,’ I said, adopting a superior tone. ‘Where do you want  to  start? Do you want to start? This could take us all night . . . I can imagine a better way to spend  the time.’

‘Can’t you feel it?’ she asked, leaning forward and grabbing my hand.

‘Feel what?’ I replied, making sure to grip her hand tightly, so she couldn’t pull it back.

‘The quickening!’ ‘The . . . what?’

‘We’re at a pivotal moment in human history. A pre-revolutionary moment.The world as it is, is wrong, can’t you sense it? Change is imminent. We’re  at   a tipping-point; it’s a quickening, a happening, a moment-of-no-return.’

‘I’m afraid I don’t feel it,’ I said firmly.

‘Try this,’ she whispered, and to my surprise she guided my hand down towards her groin. I could do nothing except stare as she pushed the palm of my hand flat against her lower abdomen. ‘Historically,’ she continued, her voice low and seductive, ‘when a woman was pregnant there was no way to tell how the foetus was developing inside her. There were no scans, no blood tests, just a lot of waiting and praying. Until . . . the quickening: the fluttering feeling a woman gets the first time her baby moves discernibly inside her. Nature’s proof of life; what has been done will not be undone.’

Her bizarre actions muddled my brain and made me stupid.We were sitting so close together, our heads bent near enough to whisper. ‘Are you pregnant?’ was all I could think to ask, my eighteen-year-old self unable to cope with her theatrics. I was only conscious of the heat of her body radiating through my hand. With a quick movement she lay flat on the ground and rolled away from me, like a cat. My hand was left reaching out to cold air. She stared at me

contemptuously.

‘No, the world is pregnant.’

‘Well, if you ever do feel like making a baby, just  let me know,’ I said, full of bravado, desperately trying to regain some control.

She didn’t flinch at my comment, just stared harder. ‘I’ll bear that in mind. But there’s no time for that now: a revolution has begun and is far enough along to be a viable opportunity for people like us. It could be ours . . .’

I nodded, mutely. As I watched her speak, my mind was beginning to create sinister diversions. In the moonlight Dana’s skin had taken on a deathly quality, and shadowy hollows had appeared around her dark eyes, which now appeared infinitely lightless. She reminded me of Bloody Mary, my favourite childhood ghost story, and how as a boy I had terrified myself trying to call up the spirit of the dead queen. In the dark of the night, shivering in flannel pyjamas, I used to stare at my own reflection in the bathroom mirror, leaning on tiptoes over the cold sink to get as close to the image as possible. A cracked whisper, ‘Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary . . .’ and before I could muster the courage for the final summons, my face would begin to morph into that of a ghostly visitor.

I still felt the sheer dread of those remembered

moments, when my physical identity had been clouded by some apparition – conjured from my own mind or some alternate reality, I found both options hideous and unbearable. In the dark, Dana now wore the face of that phantom.

‘We’ve hit a political singularity,’ she continued, her voice very clear, very human, and very alive. ‘All times of unrest promise great  change. I’m  going  to be part of it.’

I smiled at her. Clearly, she was unhinged, but her gothic intensity appealed to my naturally superstitious temperament. I found comfort in her brazenness. ‘Why the burning desire to change the world? Why not just settle into comfortable apathy like the rest of our generation?’

‘They’re not apathetic. There’s a tremendous well- spring of untapped energy that has been  ignored and suppressed for generations and that is just now starting to come forward.’

‘Okay,’ I said, semi-mockingly, drawing out the word, aiming to highlight her intensity, since I had little idea to what she was referring. There were easier girls. Girls who would be grateful to be with me, who wouldn’t be so preoccupied and  . . .  angry;  girls  who would go out of their way to please me and keep me. But I wanted Dana. And it  was  important  that she should want me too, my pride demanded it. I wanted her mind and body to be filled with nothing  but desire for me – which was why I was prepared     to resign myself to any number of wacky conversations rather than rush for her half-hearted consent.      I did not want to rest upon the inevitability of our sexual  union,  I  wanted  to  earn  it.  In  my  mind,  our meeting held a weight I associated with destiny, that our lives would be forever connected. It was too perfectly weird, and she was too witch-like.

‘Why did you come with me tonight?’ I asked. ‘Not

that I’m uninterested in the plight of our generation

– I am – but this feels like the right time to get personal.’

‘That’s very progressive of you. I believe that everything should begin with being personal.’

‘Great!’

‘By sharing my opinions I was being personal. I was being very personal. And I like that you brought me to the Meadow. I prefer being outside.’

‘Great!’

‘At the party, when you asked me if I wanted to fall in love or run away, you struck a chord. Not in the way you meant it, but because I am only interested in having the fullest experience possible in any given situation. I don’t have time for anything less.’

I was pleased that my bold gamble had been correct, and shuddered to think of how she might have reacted to a boy crass enough to offer her a simple ‘hello’.

‘Because you’re too busy feeling the quickening, and plotting how to change the world?’

She laughed delightedly. ‘Yes!’

I laughed too, pleased to have reached her. The laugh emphasised how young she was, and when her self-control was breached, she looked all of fifteen years old. It gave me hope. She had captivated me with her capricious conversation and her Gallic good looks.

‘And,’ she added, ‘I don’t believe in judging someone on their physical appearance, so I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt.’

‘Oh Jesus, thanks  . . . what’s  wrong  with  the  way I look?’

‘You scream of white male privilege, but I wanted  to see if you could be an ally.’

‘And?’ I asked hopefully.

‘I don’t think you’re suitable.’

Dana’s words were dry and dead and they crumbled my hopes. I remembered the way she had first looked at me in the kitchen, with barely disguised hatred.

‘It’s my fault,’ she continued, ignoring my distress. ‘You’re unsuitable because I  find  you  attractive.’  She lay down flat on the grass, and stared up at the black sky.

I nearly let loose a burst of bewildered and joyous laughter. This girl was so confusing; she was my very own modern-day Mary Shelley, a rebel and non-conformist – a maker of monsters. She was teasing me!

‘I find you attractive too,’ I said, abandoning game theory.

‘The thing is, I just don’t want any kind of romantic relationship.’

‘Well, I think you’re being slightly presump- tuous—’ I began, but stopped when her mouth tightened, rightly unimpressed with the lie. ‘Okay, well why don’t you want a relationship? Are you bi? Or poly?’ I remembered the way all the girls at the party had kissed her hand.

She  rolled  her eyes. ‘No.’

‘So why don’t you want a relationship?’

‘Because I don’t want to be distracted from my work.’

It was my turn to roll my eyes. Oh. That. How ordinary of her. Well, it might take time, but that was easily overcome. I lay down next to her, feeling opti- mistic once more. I turned to look at Dana’s strong face, her white skin pulled tight across her bones, the mass of black hair falling from her high forehead, and knew I had achieved as much as was possible for our first encounter; I would be going to bed alone. ‘Look, can I have your number? I’d like to take you out for a drink sometime.’

‘I don’t drink.’

‘Fine. A hot chocolate then. Not to distract you, simply to support whatever it is you want to do. I promise I’ll just be a devoted observer.’

I won another smile. ‘All right,’ she replied. ‘You can watch me work.’ She turned her face towards mine. She was close enough to kiss. We stared at each other, not blinking, not speaking. ‘But I don’t have a mobile phone,’ she whispered after a tortuous moment, ‘I don’t believe in idolising a technology that’s made on the other side of the globe by corpor- ations renowned for labour abuse, using blood minerals that have been the cause of millions of deaths. And besides . . . phones are surveillance devices.’

God, she was exhausting. ‘So how am I supposed to get hold of you?’

‘You know my name, Arthur. I’m at St Hilda’s. You can leave a message for me there.’

It was enough of a victory for the evening. Dana had excited in me a passion so great that any past encounter now seemed grey and dull in comparison. I was besotted.

 

Sometimes, I fantasise about being able to go back in time to the moment of our first meeting, back to sitting alone with her late at night, and I think I had the opportunity to kill her. It’s easy to kill a woman. It happened all the time before The Change, women were murdered every day.

It would have been so simple to reach across and push both my hands down on her neck. I could’ve just pushed down until her windpipe crushed and buckled, and her spine cracked in two. I could have sat on her chest, my full weight on her ribcage, and punched her in the face over and over again until her brain was curdled in her skull.

I could have prevented everything that was to  come. Then how different might my life have been. And not just my life, but the lives of countless others.