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Intelligent Private Lines

Photograph by Anastasia Taylor Lind, Story by Claire Fuller

Copy of Russian Cadets_ATL.jpg

She hangs around with us after school even though we make it clear she bores us. We whisper nonsense and pretend to laugh at jokes so she laughs too, and we ask, ‘What’s so funny?’ to watch her squirm. She knows we are mean, and yet still she follows along behind. ‘Like a dog,’ we say, loud enough for her to hear.

    For something to do, we join art club and she does too. We spend the hour doodling and daring each other to catch Mr Seaton alone in the art supplies cupboard to see if we can make him do something we can report. She draws a picture of the sky in oil pastels: pinks and purples and greens like an apocalypse. Mr Seaton holds it up to the class. We don’t go back to art club and neither does she. We’ve had enough of her now. We join the choir, and we’re surprised that we can sing in tune, but we’re kicked out for using dirty words instead of the proper ones, and she leaves too, and we talk about how much she annoys us.

    We join the army cadets because mud and boys and combat gear sound cool. She finds out and comes as well and we’re angry enough to make a plan. After the induction class we have to choose an activity and we tell her we’ve put our names down for first-aid and she signs up for that, but really we’ve selected communications and radio systems. By the time she finds out, our activity is full. We hate those sad looks she gives us. After the class she is waiting for us outside and we begin to believe that we’ll never shake her off. We go to cadets every week. She is shown how to tie a tourniquet, while we learn about pseudorandom sequences, frequency modulation, electromagnetic interference, and intelligent private lines. We become experts.

    We are in maths when a girl yells and points out of the window. There’s screaming and crying and hysteria, and students hiding under their desks, but we clamber over the tables and chairs to stare out at the massive, shiny, object hanging in the sky above the school. We look at each other and smile. We see students and teachers pouring out of the downstairs classrooms. Some run away along the road, but others stop to look up. We see the shadow on the playground – huge and cigar-shaped - and we start laughing, great big belly laughs, until we’re clutching our stomachs and doubling over. She laughs too, like she always does, but this time she really doesn’t know what the joke is. Mrs Ford tries to get us away from the windows but then she gives up, and class and school is dismissed. Outside, parents are running in to collect their children as if they think the world is going to end. Our parents don’t come, because they aren’t those kinds of people.

    There’s a small rise at the far end of the playing fields and we race there with everyone else – students, TV crews and teachers; we even see the Headmaster jogging across the hockey pitch in his suit, his eyes turned upward, his mouth open. She comes too of course, like we knew she would, with that sappy smile on her face, that we can no longer stand and soon will no longer have to see. We have our army cadet uniforms in our rucksacks and we get them out and put them on over our school clothes, so that we feel official. We put on our combat trousers and jackets. We tighten our belts and tip our berets to the right angles. No one is looking at us; they are all looking skywards, or down to their phones as if those electronic images are more real than the one above. She is still looking up too, and we pull her a little more forward, a little more to the left, onto the designated spot, although she doesn’t know it.

    At the bottom of our rucksacks we have the radio components – the antenna, the headset, the initiator, the transmitter, and the receiver. We crouch to fit them together and switch the machine on, nervous about whether the battery will work, whether the signal will be strong enough. The lights are solid green, and we transmit: a signal on a loop we’ve practiced many times with the exact co-ordinates and a request.

    The crowd around us gasps and shouts as a spot on the shiny underside of the spaceship dulls. The cigar is 10 metres above our heads, blocking out the sun. We pass the radio headphones between us, smiling and nodding. The circle on the bottom of the spaceship widens and a light appears, a pinprick to begin with. People run down from the hillock, someone falls over and another person drags them up and away. The light is directly above her head and still she stands looking up. The light increases and throws a bright circle on the grassy top, with her in the exact centre. She turns to look at us with delight on her face as if she is the chosen one, which she is, in a way. Her feet are hovering five centimetres above the ground. The people around us back off, even the TV camera crews and interviewers move away from her. We are still transmitting, kneeling around the radio, checking the dials, which are bright, and only then do we see that the light has widened to include us as well. We are lifted off the ground too, and there is air beneath our shoes. We frown at each other and try to move, but the beam has caught us with her and slowly we are all lifted up and up. We can hear the shouts on the ground, but we are frozen, stuck. And all the while she is looking at us, that irritating smile still on her face.

Claire Fuller didn’t start writing until she was 40, when she began writing short fiction. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize, and her second novel, Swimming Lessons was shortlisted for the Encore Award. Her third, Bitter Orange was published earlier in 2018. As well as being published in several literary journals, her short stories have won BBC Opening Lines and the Royal Academy / Pin Drop competitions. She lives in Hampshire with her husband and has two grown up children. @writerclairefuller

Anastasia Taylor-Lind is a contributor to National Geographic magazine and a TED Fellow. In 2014, she published her first book, “Maidan – Portraits from the Black Square,” which documents the Ukrainian uprising in Kiev. Her images have been exhibited in spaces such as the Saatchi Gallery, the Frontline Club, and the National Portrait Gallery in London. Her award-winning work has appeared in GEO, Time, The New Yorker, The Sunday Times Magazine, Telegraph magazine and Vanity Fair. Anastasia was a Ruth Cowan Nash Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2016 and a Logan Fellow 2017 at The Carey Institute for Global Good.Find her here @anastasiatl

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