Callan Preece ~ The Virtue of Plastics

Then he stopped want­i­ng sex. Then he stopped talk­ing much at all. At his worst he’d pace through rooms and the air would adhere and fol­low him and all the time you could feel all these thoughts going through his head—these images of syphilis and rot and brazen, world­ly troops traips­ing through whore­hous­es cov­ered in the stink of virus­es. You had to avoid him when he got like that, when the war became sex­u­al and he’d become angry at the mere exis­tence of you so you’d hide away and make your­self small. It was as if you became a sym­bol of all the bad, all the sol­diers in tem­po­rary hos­pi­tals with their puss-filled skin and lesions and lust. He’d look at you and see them and then he’d get angry because he couldn’t under­stand why noth­ing in this world could be pure. Why he alone saw what was light and good and clean.

That was the way with my Führer. (He was always my Führer, even after every­thing.) There was this weight of his­to­ry in him; pres­sure and weight and work. You had to under­stand he was bur­dened by big­ger things, bur­dened right to the end.

In bed he’d read his reports. He’d read and I’d be next to him and some­times I’d ride my hand up his leg (all secret and qui­et) and then he’d shoo me away and there’d be a silence. When he left the room I’d read those let­ters decod­ed and sprawled in pat­terns across the sheets, read about the sol­diers and trench­es and the shar­ing and exchange of ill­ness. The extent of dis­ease and the obses­sions that build his­to­ry. When he’d return I’d pre­tend to be asleep and he’d keep read­ing and I’d think about how my hand was a moment ago at his leg, about how actions can divide between two points in time.

It became habit to read his let­ters. I found where he kept them and I’d sneak glances when I could. I read and tried to under­stand him through words, those shak­ing sym­bols that spoke of large and ter­ri­ble things and places I’d nev­er go. When peo­ple came to din­ner I’d hear things too. I’d be in the kitchen, fix­ing drinks and food and he’d be in the liv­ing room enter­tain­ing and speak­ing of plans in hushed and bois­ter­ous tones, and I’d hear it all because I was already a spec­tre by then, exist­ing more as a pres­ence in a room than with­in it. I could see and observe and learn. I tried to under­stand him.

I want­ed to see him again as I did before. I want­ed him to see me, want­ed to turn things back to when he wasn’t angry, when he want­ed me and cared, and I couldn’t grasp what had changed. I tried to under­stand and thought of old paint­ed sea­side days and the ways that mem­o­ries fol­low you through space—him in knit-top and shorts plash­ing through icy water; can­dyfloss and vine­gar and the smell of brine-soaked air. Funny how instead he just sat and read or talked in hushed tones about the sick­ness that fol­lows lust and I just had to sit apart and under­stand and pretend.

Often it would be Hannussen with him at din­ner. The old and anx­ious indus­tri­al­ist that grov­elled and spoke bro­mides and seemed to linger through rooms. He liked Hannussen. They shared that same dis­trust of dis­ease and rot; that same obses­sion with puri­ty. It was Hannussen, I think, that first pro­posed the idea, and it was Hannussen that brought the first ship­ments of the syn­thet­ics, the bot­tles and box­es with long chem­i­cal names and sym­bols hiero­glyph­ing their sides. It was Hannussen that rec­om­mend­ed the con­trac­tors, rebuilt the base­ment, turned the house into a shift­ing, com­plex thing. I hat­ed him. I hat­ed what he did, hat­ed the con­stant sounds of drills and ham­mers and indus­try that filled my ears as I made food. When Hannussen would leave my Führer would become qui­et again and descend down into that base­ment, lock the door, turn away all light and sound from the world, and I’d be up in the kitchen, pre­tend­ing, pre­tend­ing not to notice or care or think about all the machi­na­tions that go on in great minds.

Yes, I pre­tend­ed not to notice. I pre­tend­ed and I hoped he appre­ci­at­ed my pretending.

I pre­tend­ed not to read the reports and I pre­tend­ed not to hear the building.

When Hannussen dropped the key I pre­tend­ed not to pick it up, pre­tend­ed and dis­ap­peared back into those back­ground spaces.

I pre­tend­ed and the base­ment became an impor­tant place and sud­den­ly it was there that I imag­ined my Führer. He stopped being with me—left liv­ing rooms and kitchens and theatres—became fixed in that base­ment. He’d come in and descend down and I’d still be in the house not know­ing but imag­in­ing. I’d won­der if he still con­sid­ered me. I’d won­der at what it takes to con­struct a world. And it was strange watch­ing our lives diverg­ing, me upstairs think­ing of sea­sides and him below not think­ing much of me at all; both of us two ram­bling points in space, unfurl­ing away with time. Both of us so dif­fer­ent. I want­ed to talk to him, to make him under­stand, but I didn’t, so I tried to under­stand him and kept my own pre­tend­ing and when he’d come up to bed I’d pre­tend to be asleep. And then some­time after the end of the ham­mers and build­ing he start­ed touch­ing me like he used to, had these wan­der­ing and lin­ger­ing hands. It was strange and I’d won­der as he touched what had made him do it; and the touch­ing would be ter­ri­ble because you could tell that he wasn’t real­ly there. He’d take me and he’d be there but he’d be in the base­ment. He’d be in the base­ment, far away. And there I was, being touched and pretending.

Then began the miss­ing brassieres and panties and silk stock­ings and skirts. The lip­sticks and pow­ders. There was all the com­mo­tion that hap­pened in a night and the way I’d some­times hear him raid­ing my wardrobe as I feigned sleep. There was that new touch­ing and the way he’d become so vir­ile so quick­ly after he’d come from the base­ment and it became so unbear­able and wild and I had to know.

It was only after that I decid­ed it must have felt like fore­play for him. I decid­ed that the whole war must have felt like foreplay.

It was the day when the war had tak­en him to Hamburg and I was alone and I had Hannussen’s hid­den key. I remem­ber I start­ed mov­ing and descend­ing and it was like a thing falling and I felt com­pelled to the base­ment and then I was there. I remem­ber I switched on a light and I remem­ber there was a smell of polyvinyl. I saw her. She was propped against a wall to give an illu­sion of stand­ing and she was wear­ing one of my dress­es, the thing drenched over her like a flu­id. Her fea­tures were flat, almost spher­i­cal, and her hair (horse­hair) was bleached to an off-white. More than any­thing was the sense of plas­tic­i­ty to her, the pure and edi­fy­ing plas­tic­ness that speaks of com­ing things. Her make­up was smudged around the mouth and I kept look­ing at her and I saw all the holes and all the hor­ri­fy­ing impli­ca­tions that can stem from objects. There were the thoughts of sounds and plas­tic under fric­tion, of the nights he’d start­ed want­i­ng me again. Everything was alive and shak­ing and vio­lent. It was hor­ri­ble. I want­ed things to be qui­et again.

When he came home I went back to the pre­tend­ing except it was all taint­ed now and the way he moved fright­ened me. He’d take me in the night and I imag­ined them both togeth­er, imag­ined him build­ing her with a cer­tain pro­cliv­i­ty for love, and I’d think about all the things he must have done, about her below beck­on­ing a sort of qui­et beck­on­ing. I thought about puri­ty and clean­li­ness and how unham­pered she was by decay and death and sin. I won­dered if he loved her and then of course he did. He loved her and didn’t think of me and the idea of sea­sides became stu­pid and school­girl and I under­stood that I could nev­er hold any­thing to her; I was so hor­ri­bly finite. She beheld light and I was bound to noth­ing and he built a church to her: that thing that stood as a con­for­ma­tion of every­thing he believed in.

I tried to weath­er it. I cov­ered my ears with a pil­low when I heard things at night. I cooked his food and laughed when he want­ed me to (It’s amaz­ing what the human mind can live with), but he became bold­er and his ideas got big­ger and soon I’d over­hear him telling Hannussen that she would be the first of many—a pro­to­type in need of sisters.

They were sit­ting togeth­er drink­ing and talk­ing and he was becom­ing so ani­mat­ed: cry­ing out about a sort of reverse germ war­fare and the end of sin. He want­ed to repli­cate her and gift her to the troops, send her out in a mil­lion lit­tle box­es all across the Continent to be enjoyed and played with. He so loved hav­ing a play­thing. He hoped, he told Hannussen while I exist­ed as a ghost over every­thing, that this could be the start of some­thing great—not only free­ing hos­pi­tals but set­ting an exam­ple for his peo­ple, show­ing them a per­fect and undy­ing race, the con­clu­sion of play­ing with blood­lines. Everything was so ani­mat­ed as he spoke. All so pure and defy­ing and German and clean. They agreed to con­struct and pack­age the girls in one of Hannussen’s old buildings—the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in cen­tral Dresden—using Hitler Youth to aid in the stuff­ing and pack­ag­ing of those deflat­ed things. I heard it all, of course, pre­tend­ing not to notice and with them not notic­ing, and it was a strange thing and it was as if that thing below was becom­ing con­crete as I fad­ed away, gain­ing a cer­tain life as mine ebbed, sort of flow­ing into the cor­ners of rooms.

He start­ed dis­ap­pear­ing for a long time after that. To Dresden, pre­sum­ably, though he nev­er said. Sometimes he’d send me let­ters and some­times his reports would arrive and I’d read them before he got back. I’d go down into the base­ment and often she’d be there and often she’d be gone, and I’d think about how she was help­ing him and all the things he was build­ing, and about what it takes to be made with a cer­tain pro­cliv­i­ty for love.

The first group of girls flew with­in six months of the project start­ing. From what I gath­er they were loaded into HE-177 bombers and flown out across Northern France. When I learned that I remem­ber being excit­ed. He was down in Dresden then, watch­ing them fly, and I imag­ined her being with them, fly­ing off and away and for a moment then I was hope­ful. For a moment I con­sid­ered the whole thing to be over—a point in time that could van­ish with its unfold­ing. I made din­ner and bought wine for his return. I cleaned and sort­ed and want­ed to build a cas­tle for him and show that I loved him: that there were things more capa­ble of love.

Of course, then he did return.

He returned and I was sleep­ing and when I woke up he was just there.

All that day we bare­ly spoke and he seemed dis­tract­ed, dis­tant, and it was all so hor­ri­ble because I knew that she must have not flown with the oth­ers. I sus­pect­ed and I knew but it was only lat­er when I man­aged to sneak a peak into the base­ment and I found her there, the first, the non-clone. She was there in her dress. In my dress. She stood down there and I knew he must real­ly love her because he couldn’t let her go—had to keep her for him­self, the con­stant com­pan­ion and play­thing. I knew then that she was real to him, a dif­fer­ent, a porous real, and it was dread­ful and sad and I cried and want­ed to wail but didn’t because I was wor­ried he’d hear. He couldn’t’ send her away and I tried to cry silent­ly and let those watery trails con­geal in lit­tle rivers along the con­tours of my face; I tried to imag­ine him hap­py and with me and not here and not tor­tured by what­ev­er was hap­pen­ing to his mind.

War does fun­ny things to a person.

The worst thing was that he didn’t notice my cry­ing. Or if he did he was past car­ing. I went back upstairs and fixed din­ner and he bare­ly looked at me and I realised then that some­thing was over; that we’d lost an impor­tant part along the way and now we were just float­ing and drift­ing and soon things would diverge away to noth­ing. It was a pow­er­less feel­ing. It made the idea of find­ing his truths seem point­less, school­girl. It made every­thing a sort of grey, and it was all the worse know­ing he didn’t care: I was griev­ing for some­thing that he didn’t even remember.

The girls fell over France.

They fell over Rouen, Jersey, Le Mans. They fell in a sweep­ing web spi­ralling towards Paris.

They fell and I felt his absence. I felt him down there, with her: totem-like and plas­tic and pure. He was so far away. You could have filled a whole uni­verse in the spaces between us

When Hannussen vis­it­ed there’d be all this singing and laugh­ing and bright, shin­ing joy. I began to won­der if Hannussen was there to off­set the mourn­ing that was fill­ing the home. They’d talk about the troops; they’d role­play being the troops and find­ing the dolls, always so elat­ed and thank­ful. God I hat­ed both of them. I hat­ed their smug smiles and the way their hap­pi­ness seemed to inval­i­date my mis­ery. It was all so cer­tain and pleased and the singing would keep me up as I tried to sleep.

Seasides began to seem like impos­si­ble things.

The girls fell over Reims, Soissons, Meaux.

It was hor­ri­ble and sad and seemed eter­nal but then a won­der­ful thing hap­pened. It was some­thing to do with their con­ver­sa­tions, the way they talked about the girls with such fer­vour, but after the box­es dropped there’d be noth­ing, no word on the dolls’ impacts, just their arrivals. It seemed that once girls had rained down, para­chut­ed to the wait­ing men, they’d van­ish. There was nev­er any word on the state of the troops, how they enjoyed their toys. Him and Hannussen didn’t seem to care, at least for a while, but there came a point where they seemed anx­ious. I noticed Hannussen would come around and they wouldn’t sing but instead would dis­cuss soft­ly, wor­ried­ly, at it seemed I was no longer the only grief that seeped through a room.

He start­ed mak­ing all these trips to Dresden again.

When he was home he’d always yell and fid­dle rhyth­mi­cal­ly with his fin­gers. Whatever I did made him angry and it became eas­i­er to exist as pure­ly sep­a­rate entities—paths tru­ly diverged and dis­tant. Hannussen would wor­ry him and there’d often be noth­ing but talk of the girls lost in France—how none of the reports were thank­ful, how the dolls seemed to have been swal­lowed by the earth. Allied inter­ven­tion? Communist plots?

It was only lat­er, once we moved to the bunker, that I learned what had hap­pened. It was when Hannussen made his final vis­it before the bombs dropped and the Russians closed in and all the walls and ceil­ing kept shak­ing and there was that con­stant low hum of back­ground scream­ing. There was a lot of com­mo­tion and run­ning peo­ple and Hannussen was with him and talk­ing about old times. Everything was so lost and cold and they didn’t notice me and they talked about the dolls and they even laughed a little—a not hap­py, not sad laugh that sig­ni­fies the end of things.

I found that com­mend­able, I sup­pose. The binds and bridges that mas­culin­i­ty forms.

They sat with me in the back­ground and they remem­bered the embar­rassed troops, the troops that laughed at the dolls; the troops that used them as tar­get prac­tice, fir­ing vol­ley after vol­ley into syn­thet­ic plas­tic. They talked and sort of lament­ed those dead girls. The tragedy of it, how they were born into a world unready. It seemed the sol­diers found it stu­pid and lost respect and appar­ent­ly once you’ve lost that you’ve lost every­thing. Maybe the world’s nat­u­ral­ly sus­pi­cious of eter­nal things. The whole thing was very strange but by then every­thing was strange and the world was shak­ing and it all seemed almost irrel­e­vant. Though I was hap­py think­ing about those girls rot­ting in a French win­ter. The dig­ni­ty that comes through rot.

Of course, I only learned this lat­er, under­stand. While we were still at the house I only knew that my Führer was unhap­py and that the war was shift­ing and that he spent all his time in the base­ment or in Dresden.

And I knew that we were los­ing and that things were begin­ning to dis­in­te­grate. It was com­ing up to the tail-end of things, and we’d be leav­ing for the bunker soon. The Allies and Soviets were clos­ing in on both sides, squeez­ing space togeth­er to a sin­gu­lar point, and peo­ple were afraid. I was afraid. I didn’t know what would hap­pen to us and I want­ed him to guide me, guide every­one, but all he’d think about were his stu­pid dolls and that stu­pid thing down­stairs and I despised him for that. He was revolt­ing and self­ish and stu­pid and all he’d do was mope about those damned girls while his­to­ry crashed around him. In those last days I hat­ed him so much. I hat­ed him and I bare­ly slept and then there was that night when he didn’t come to bed at all; I laid there in that black, wait­ing, and he didn’t come, and I had that com­pul­sion to descend, to fall again, just like that first time, to the base­ment. I hat­ed him so much and I want­ed to see what he was destroy­ing every­thing for. I went down and cracked the door open and peered into the light and I saw him there with her. I saw him stand­ing and star­ing into those eyes—those plas­tic eyes—and I could hear him mum­bling. He was talk­ing about the war. The words were qui­et and I couldn’t hear every­thing but I heard what was important—I heard him telling her that it was lost, that every­thing was lost. That now he was wait­ing and then it would be done. That he was sor­ry that this was how it went.

I think she’s the only per­son he ever told that to.

We didn’t stay in the house long after that. We moved to the bunker and every­thing became dark and the Allies and Soviets closed in. She came with us, of course. She was kept in a room I wasn’t allowed to enter. She was brought so that he could pre­pare for the end.

In the bunker you could hear a lot of things and there was a lot of shout­ing and mov­ing and papers every­where. You could hear fight­ing some­times. He would retreat to her and come out fresh and maybe give a speech to calm peo­ple and make every­thing ok, use some words to colour real­i­ty pret­ti­er than it real­ly was.

Hannussen came and went and I heard he died, cap­tured by Russians and dis­ap­peared. I was hap­py about that, I sup­pose, one of the last times you could all any­thing I did happy.

At some point Churchill ordered 722 heavy bombers to drop 3900 tons of high-explo­sive bombs over the city of Dresden. Apparently the fac­to­ry dis­solved to a plas­tic paste. I was hap­py about that, too. It felt poet­ic, right, some karmic jus­tice amongst these break­ing things. A crew was sent to sal­vage what was left after the fire and all they found was torn iron and burnt wood and syn­thet­ic gunk. A dead and dying indus­try. After that he stopped car­ing about any­thing and saw the doll a lot and then he didn’t even care enough to hide her from me. She was just there in her room and some­times he wouldn’t both­er to close the door behind him.

Sometimes I’d won­der if he even remem­bered me.

I hat­ed her so much and I hat­ed him more than any­thing. I hat­ed her and her body became a tem­ple for my hate, an aggre­ga­tor that stored and con­sumed it. She was there with him and no one else seemed to care, were all doing their own pre­tend­ing and not notic­ing. And it was all so stu­pid and I was so sick of pre­tend­ing and I want­ed to hurt. I want­ed to feel that won­der­ful rush of caus­ing pain.

And then the bombs kept falling over Berlin, begin­ning togeth­er and then dif­fus­ing away and you could see that he only thought of her. There was a lot of scream­ing and I knew a lot of peo­ple were dying and all that time he couldn’t stop think­ing of her and his entire face was filled up with her, as if it wasn’t so much him but her now—her being envelop­ing and con­tort­ing him. I thought about killing them both; I thought how won­der­ful it would be to kill them both. I made plans. A sol­dier gave me a gun and I thought I could do it. There were so many bombs and sud­den­ly we were mar­ried and I couldn’t under­stand why and even as we got mar­ried he was think­ing of her. Bombs and artillery and us get­ting mar­ried. It was all so stu­pid. After the cer­e­mo­ny he just went back to her again and her smug grin and I thought that the next day I would do it. It felt good to con­struct cer­tain­ty. Everything felt so sure and right and I could do it and then Allies and Soviets kept squeez­ing, squeez­ing the city and it became too late, every­thing too late, and I remem­ber look­ing at that damned plas­tic face and I blamed her because in some way it was all her—she had done and caused every­thing and he loved her so much and I just couldn’t under­stand. I want­ed to kill her but every­thing was over and point­less and she exist­ed in all places. In his mind and in my mind and in the end of wars. I cried for that, for me and for him, for every­thing that she’d done to us, and he com­fort­ed me because he thought that I was afraid, but I wasn’t because noth­ing mat­tered. He told me that it would soon be over and I believed him. I looked at him and tried to remem­ber that he was built with a cer­tain pro­cliv­i­ty for love and he hand­ed me pills—little tablets, smelling of almonds—and I cried and he held me and I tried to think of us and not of her but she was every­where. The world dif­fused slow­ly through the room: lights and sounds and beings. She was every­where. I looked into his face and cried and I let out one last lit­tle prayer that maybe he’d think of me and not her when it end­ed. A point­less prayer. Even then she filled up every­thing. It was like star­ing into her eyes and not his. Things dif­fused and I thought of her and the syn­the­sis and glo­ry of plas­tics. I thought of her and him and him think­ing of her and the room fell apart and the walls rum­bled and every­thing dif­fused away. There she was, a qui­et prayer into a syn­thet­ic night, sig­ni­fy­ing everything.


Callan Preece start­ed writ­ing short sto­ries when he was 20, most­ly telling small sto­ries about small peo­ple that he finds inter­est­ing, occa­sion­al­ly veer­ing off into things of a more his­toric nature. He has forth­com­ing pub­li­ca­tions in Piker Press and hopes to be pub­lished else­where soon. Callan is cur­rent­ly train­ing to be a math teacher though he expects that won’t last too long, economies being what they are. Mostly he’s just grate­ful for any­one tak­ing the time to read his stories.