Matthew recently finished his debut novel, Barker. The prologue is available to sample, and you should. But first read "Stateless," an elegy to the tantalizing apprehension of being on the verge of big things.
Ink painting by Ludolf Backhuysen, via the Met.
"You knock, Jazz. Your sweetheart lives here, not mine."
I look at Pap. He's always pulling this sort of shit. I raise my hand and knock whilst glaring at him, rapping the door harder than necessary and pretending it's his forehead. Pap pokes his tongue out.
"I'll snatch that next time," I tell him.
"Give Main this much grief?" He asks the question with such sincere curiosity. Like a critic delving into an artist's process.
I shrug. "Not if he does what I want."
Pap thrusts his hands into his pockets and tips his head back, whistling to the heavens. He's a bamboo cane convexing and snapping back to straight.
"Too much time with Ma. You need more time with me. More outings like this."
I grin. This outing is no hero's journey. We live at the north end of the Av. Main and his parents live at the south end. Pap and I have walked a few hundred feet. In a straight line, down the centre of the street, using the cars parked nose-to-tail as a guard of honour.
The sun hasn't reached its apex but the heat is still fierce, and the pavement is still hazardous. The Av belongs to the kids in the summer. They roam it, swarm it, shouting, screaming, laughing, charging in and out of each other's houses. Most of their parents shelter indoors and leave front doors gaping. Packs of tiny terrors banging in and slamming out can be tiresome.
The cautious parents sit out front, occupying the squat, bricked-in gardens that are tacked on the front of each terraced house. There's only one or two cautious ones, though. Everyone knows everyone here. Everyone trusts everyone.
I swallow and exhale. So much trust, so freely given. Bound to be abused.
Pap hears me breathe and turns. "Nervous, Jazz?"
I don't answer because the door opens. It's my sweetheart, Main.
I feel dizzy. The sudden opening of a portal has created a disequilibrium between two spaces, and the only way to balance the pressure is for me to fall from this space to the other.
I pause, steady myself. I'm not a kid anymore. Boundaries aren't so freely traversable.
Main speaks, acknowledges Pap. "Mister Fuller." Then me. "Jazz."
I offer him my best smile and he ducks it. I've ignored his messages all morning.
Pap replies, calls to Main’s parents in the hallway, too. "Main. Sol, DiDi. Big day, huh."
Main steps back, welcoming us. Pap strides in and onwards, monopolises the attention of Main's parents. The adult trio shuffles off, out of the hallway and into the living room.
I'm left alone with Main.
We've been comfortable since we were toddlers. But today is different. He wants to take my hand but he won't reach. He wants to speak but refuses to say anything.
So I lead. "Main. I'm sorry. I was walking. I needed to…" I falter. Needed to what? Think? I’ve done my thinking. Come up with an excuse, a justification? Even the highest logic is inadequate; won't help him understand.
He's not soothed. "Still Inertia, though, yeah?"
I don't reply and my silence jerks his words into a different register.
"We're staying, right Jazz? The Av. Your family. Mine. Our friends. Me."
Still I don't reply. He tries again. I've always admired his tenacity, even if it sometimes ends up as stubbornness. "Jazz?"
Pap pokes his head around the corner. "Romeo. Juliet. Hustle. Time's up."
Main twists his neck and swallows Pap's words. Twists back to me. With his eyes he begs. With those eyes he breaks my fucking heart. I nod in one moment and hate myself in the next. Coward coward coward.
Main perks up, though I think it's a front. He can sense a problem. But he thinks it's at the next bridge, not this one.
Now, he reaches for my hand. I let it envelop mine. I find myself clinging to it, clutching it. Coward coward coward. We enter the living room together. Whole, for the moment.
Main's house is like most houses on the Av, with a rectangular bay window jutting into the front garden. His parents have jammed two sofas into the bay. They don't fit and spill out into the room at large, like shrubs encroaching upon a public footpath. A coffee table has been squeezed between the sofas as well.
My Pap is reclining on the left sofa, next to Main's ma, DiDi. Main's father Sol is balancing on the sofa's arm. They've left the right sofa empty, for Main and I.
Main leads me through the little room and offers me the window seat, my usual. I don't want it but I take it. Here's to normality! The coffee table doesn't leave enough room for a full gait, so I have to crab-shuffle in and concertina myself down and back. I've done it a thousand times, though, so I pull it off with grace. Main does the same a second later. He sits centimetres away, leaving a third of the sofa vacant. Here's to normality.
Drinks rest on coasters on the scuffed coffee table. An OJ and lemonade for me. A bottled beer for Pap — a special occasion, he claims, though he says that even on non-special days.
Three coffees for the Boyegas. Sol and DiDi's coffees are long and black, poured from a cafetière. Main's is long and black, too, but his is suffused with sugar. He puts on airs, pretends he enjoys the bitterness. But I know he's all about the sweetness.
There's also a tablet on the coffee table, propped open. The glass rectangle is why we've assembled.
Main and I grew up in north London, England, United Kingdom. We're British natives. But now that we're sixteen, we get to select states. Choose our citizenships. It's the same all around the world.
We can remain where we are. Stay native, be Inertia kids; most people do that. We could choose a bell-state, like the US. Become British-American and spend the next decade state-side with an adopted family. Or we could choose a tail-state, like Peru or Romania or Burma or Côte d'Ivoire, and spend a decade taking a crash-course in a different culture, learning a different language, living a life different to anything we've known.
Main says it's like choosing a gear load-out for a first-person shooter. Consider the terrain, in tandem with your strengths and weaknesses; adapt the choice to your revealed preferences and proven proficiencies.
I disagree. To me, the choice is more fundamental and more profound. We haven't talked about this in-depth, though Main's made it clear that he thinks it best we stay. We talk(ed) about everything, just not this.
Pap leans forward and takes a swig from the sweating beer bottle. His other hand rotates the tablet towards us. Neither Sol nor DiDi speaks.
Pap asks, "Well?"
I turn to Main. He looks back at me, an undercurrent of fear swirling beneath a gently swaying surface. The only tell is the sweat beading on his forehead. There's no sweat on my forehead, but I can feel my temperature rising, can feel the fire brewing in my stomach. Soon it'll have to spew out.
Sol senses my unease. "Jermaine, son, how 'bout you go first? Give Jasmine a sec to breathe."
"Yeah, 'course." I don't know whether he does it for my benefit, to give me more time, but Main extends a hand and picks up his coffee. He lifts the mug, purses his lips, blows on it, and tests the temperature with a tentative sip. Satisfied, he returns it to his lips for a bigger mouthful, then a second.
I watch him with devout attention, like an acolyte receiving a blessing from his deity. I watch him like I'm witnessing a miracle. I watch him because he might not let me this close to him again.
Composure assured, Main lowers his mug and swaps it for the tablet. He taps in his info, ticks boxes that confirm this, confirms receipt of warnings against that, acquiesces to the terms and the conditions and the risks and the benefits. He pauses on the selection screen. Scrolls through multiple citizenships, reads the compressions of their offerings. Though he does it like someone confirming the inferiority of the options not about to be selected.
A tense thirty seconds becomes a wavering minute. Finally Main reads the summary of British citizenship, selects it, and punches the confirmation with apparent laissez-faire. His parents and Pap don’t see it, but I do: Main's quivering finger almost misses the right spot on the screen.
It's done. He looks at the tablet for a few seconds. Is Main coming round to my way of thinking, appreciating the significance of the choice he’s just made? He raises his chin and speaks flatly.
"I'm staying." Main speaks again, more verve this time. "I'm staying on the Av."
The adults raise their drinks, tilt them in tribute. Then they look at me.
Main slides the tablet my way. His smile contains expectation along with relief. I drag my eyes from his and dump them on the screen. I feel him scoop up his mug and lean back, certain that I’ll make the same choice.
I go through the same manoeuvres, input info and tick-tick-tap-tap. I glance up when I get to the selection screen.
Sol and DiDi are mirroring their boy's ease, aglow with happiness that their son is going to be near and remain dear. He hasn't ditched them, sought flight. They're heaping low-key expectations on me, too. I wish they wouldn't. As if this isn't hard enough, already.
Pap is less at ease. He knows me, so he knows something's up. There's expectation in his face, too, but it's different. Many times before today he's told me that him and Ma have got me, whatever I choose to do, wherever I choose to go. Don't waste the opportunity on our behalf, he’s said. We love ya and THAT is THAT. He always said the last with operatic flourish.
The damn goofball can't say those things here and now, though, but Pap gets the message across with a nod of his head and the damp twinkle in his eyes. His loving faith makes this easier, and harder.
I scroll to the bottom of the citizenship list, select the lowermost option. I read, re-read, and re-re-read the compression of the upside and the downside. The fire in my stomach kindles, swells. A few quick breaths and I make my selection. Now I have to confirm it.
A vision of duddies receiving peerages and lordships from Her Majesty comes to mind. I see the circus of pomp and propriety. Tailored suits, elegant dresses, gleaming jewels and steady steps and rehearsed statements
Choosing a citizenship has none of that. Not in this part of London. Not on the Av. Not amongst people like us. Here I am, sitting on an old sofa in my boyfriend's living room, about to allocate the next decade of my life with a touch of my thumb on a hand-me-down, two-gen-old tablet. About to decimate a lifelong relationship with a stab of a digit.
Outside, a gang of children yells with the reckless abandon of whole-hearted play. I don't see them pass the window, but their whooping and hollering dopples in and out. If I was one for omens I'd detect some sign, some meaning, in the timing of their appearance. But I'm not.
My finger descends and I confirm it: I'm going Stateless.
Post-confirmation, there's a screen of boilerplate. My name, address, date of birth, serial number, my selection, generic congratulations. I stay still, eyes on the tablet. Afraid. No, terrified.
I raise my eyes up, connect them with my Pap's. Main stirs beside me. He places a hand on my right shoulder, levers himself forward and replaces his mug on the table. He tries to offer his own congratulations. Air is expelled from his mouth — I hear it — but it doesn't become words. The hand on my shoulder stiffens and tells me he’s looking at the screen.
Main winds his hand back towards his torso. He shifts his hips away from me and to the edge of the sofa. I wait, just for a moment. Courage courage courage. I shudder, square myself up and turn, not ashamed yet sorry all the same. So so sorry.
In Main's eyes, confusion is in a Mexican-standoff with sorrow and anger. Anger draws first. Main’s mouth moves but it makes no noise. He masters himself, tries again, succeeds.
"What the fuck, Jazz?" He bolts up and his shins jostle the coffee table. At the same time, he extends his right hand, cups his mug and, using the power from the upward drive of his hips, slingshots his mug across the room and into the wall. Before any of us can say anything, before any of us can even breathe, Main is out of the room and out of the house. Slams of the respective doors reverberate in his wake.
DiDi savages me with a minor scowl before pushing her way out of the sofa's embrace. She exits the room and enters the kitchen, returns with a cloth. Starts treating coffee stains and gathering up mug-pieces.
Pap asks, "Jazz, what did you choose?"
Sol is (almost) my Pap’s equal when it comes to easygoing. That's why their rapport is strong. "Ooooo," he says. "Bold move, young lady. Guess Jermaine wasn't expecting that, eh?"
He’s not wrong. I want to leave.
"Pap, can we… ?"
"Sure thing. Thanks for hosting, Sol, DiDi. I'll ring ya later. Let's go, sweet." Pap empties the final millilitres from his beer bottle and we depart. Once we're outside Pap pulls me close, wraps an arm around my shoulder, whispers like there’s a conspiracy afoot, "Stateless?"
I nod. We walk a while in silence.
When it comes to choosing citizenship, the distribution is well known. Most people are Inertia kids. Like Main, they opt to stay in their native land. Failing that, people select bell-states. Affluent, developed nations where secure, stable existences are the norm. There's also a wilder minority that select tail-states. They seek out less developed nations with less constraints, greater diversity, and more uncertainty.
However, it's possible to go Stateless, to not select citizenship. Instead of a decade in one place, Stateless spend ten individual years in ten different places. Their destinations are part-random and part-dependent on worldwide quotas, though they do get to choose one state to definitely visit and one to definitely avoid. Stateless are not granted the privileges and rights of traditional citizens. Instead, they have more geographical optionality, and more economic optionality too; certain states encourage or inhibit different industries, and the Stateless can go where they want, when they want, for different reasons.
The Stateless are sought after, valuable, often well-rewarded but often not that well-regarded. They are agents of changes and harbingers of exploitation. They affirm freedom at the cost of loyalty. They are the pollen that floats on the wind above the thoroughly rooted forests of the world.
Now tears are rolling down my cheeks. Walking down the Av with Pap's arm around me, I can feel all that I'm abandoning in my throat, in my gut.
Pap stops walking and turns me to face him, squats on his haunches. "You know this is okay, don't you?"
My words tumble out and tangle together. "Main didn't know. I didn't, couldn't tell him. He thought — you and Ma — I couldn’t. Sol-DiDi-nobody gets-How-can-I?-What-if-I."
"Shh, shh. I know what he thought, Jazz." Pap cups my cheek with his hand and halts the tears surging down my cheek. "Main will come around. Sol and DiDi understand. So do your Ma and I."
Looking at the ground, I know Pap is right but I don't believe him. Or I do, but I don’t want to. Main is suffering because of me. It's only right that I inflict some suffering upon myself.
"Right," says Pap. He raises my chin with his other hand and not-so-gently pats my face. His smirk makes me grin back, reluctantly. "Tonight, we're out. We'll surprise Ma at work and then head to the North Bank."
"No," I say.
I remove Pap's hands with my own. I love walking the Thames, especially in the summer. But I don't want to do that. Not now. "No."
"Can we stay in? Can you cook up something for me and Ma?"
"Can you spend ten years in ten different places and stay sane?"
Anyone else, it'd be too soon. But this is Pap. He gets a pass.
I nod. More meek, less sure than usual. Pap stands up, bumps my shoulder with his palm. I semi-stumble.
"Let's go, heartbreaker. Homeward bound."
I resist the urge to tap Pap's ankle with my toe and trip him as he starts off.
We walk back down the Av in silence. Pap's strolling a little ahead, in his element. I pull my phone, open the Stream, switch to my primary alt-account, do a quick scroll. My mutuals — also alts, also my age, but hailing from who-knows-where — are screaming about their selections. I post mine.
With the back of my left hand I remove the remnants of smudged tears from my cheek. With my right thumb I switch to Messenger and type out a message: I still love you. I send it to Main, sleep and pocket my phone, then scuttle to catch up with Pap. I take his hand in mine. He doesn't look back at me, just keeps striding and swinging his arms.