Art Pact 86

The quickest way to get from the top of the town to the bottom was to jump from the town hall, of course, but it was not without its risks. When I was five my uncles raced from the atrium to the gateway (the longest uninterrupted distance in the town) to win a bet over a girl. Uncle Blanka misjumped, possibly as a result of the weak left leg that runs in our family, and hit a lampost by the gate. It was an awkward collision, the cross-bar underneath the lamp connecting with the point between his neck and his shoulders, resulting in a shattered clavicle that left him unable to use one of his arms (the left one, although when we were young and he wanted to get out of chores or particularly tiring games, he would often pretend that the effect had spread to hsi right arm as well). The council prohibited jumping along the town's axis from then on, except in cases of emergency, and there were propaganda posters to that effect on the walls of our senior classrooms - a stylised picture of Inspector Malona carrying a butterfly net.

Naturally, the more effort the council put into stopping the long jump, the more effort the rest of us (well, the ones who counted) put into circumventing the prohibition. Since the inspectors mostly slept during the standard cycle, the simplest way to get round them was to sneak out of our houses at night and travel up through the back ways, clambering carefully up through the narrow passages and ladder-runs. We would see the others in the distance, on the other walls of the town, little shapes in grey worming up and up and looking out at us making the same journey. We would wave silently, knowing that in half an hour's time they would be our dread enemies, our competitors and rivals. At the top, in the deep shadows around the atrium, we gathered in oru little clusters, whispering and planning. Conversation was only for the other members of your gang, and (by some gentleman's agreement reached long before any of us were born yet which we still honoured without question) a gang could not have more than five members, one from each street. We spoke to the other gangs only to pass on news of an inspector that might still be awake and on its rounds: vital information if we were all to avoid having our collars felt.

My gang was short a member - Callima had been our middle-streeter, a sturdy girl with a barking laugh and a particular talent for plucking bees out of the air by their wings, which had delighted and amazed us. She would hold the little things up for our examination, their legs rippling frantically in their attempts to escape. After a minute she usually released them with a little flick of the wrist that sent them far enough away to forestall any attempt at vengeance, although in tense fights with other gangs she would often employ her little captives as poison pins, collecting them carelessly if a fight seemed to be in the offing, then jabbing the unfortunate insects into the cheeks of her opponents. My neighbour's gang called her Callima the Witch, although we were on such good terms with them most of the time that she considered it a title of honour.

But Callima the Witch was gone now, taken from us by the disease that we called Empty Bed. One day her chair at school was empty, and when I called on her mother to find out why she was off the door was opened by her father, a man we never normally saw.

"They took her to the hospital," he said, and that was all he needed to say. The children they took to the hospital were the ones the doctors couldn't cure, the ones we'd never see again.

With only four of us, we were forced to jump double to compete against the other gangs - our first jumper would have to start climbing back up the outside of the town as soon as she or he touched down, racing back to the atrium in time to jump again with the last member of the opposition. As I was the fastest climber it was inevitably me who made the second jump, which meant that it was I, exhausted and hiding in a lower-street garden, who saw the gate open for the first time in living memory.


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