Marlene first learned about virtual reality trips on the local public broadcasting station. Bill was out at the tennis club at the time and Marlene had the TV turned to a low volume while she sorted through the newspapers Bill kept piled on the coffee table, trying to decide which ones he was still reading, and which could be recycled. She liked listening to the inflections in the broadcaster’s voices, determining if they were happy or solemn or surprised. If a word ever stood out as particularly interesting, she’d raise the volume by several clicks for as long as the segment maintained her interest. It reminded her of being in the house with Bill—the best parts of it— how Bill kept up a muttered dialogue with his surroundings, and sometimes a word or a phrase caught Marlene’s attention and she responded with a comment or a little laugh and Bill looked up at her in surprise, and for a moment they remembered each other’s presence and Marlene felt happy not to be alone.
The word that caught Marlene’s attention was “bomb,” as in “atomic bomb.” When she went to stand by the TV, she saw that it was part of a news special, a report on a virtual reality tour in Hiroshima, which allowed participants to view the city as it had looked before the atomic bomb was dropped, a cheerful, thriving city with red camellias lining first-floor window boxes. In the news segment, United States veterans stood on the sidewalk next to mirrored skyscrapers, crowds of people parting around them, and cried into their VR goggles. One man, overcome, pulled his goggles down and wiped at his face with the back of his wrist. “I think I’d like to take a break,” he said, and the segment cut to a shot of the reporter sitting at her desk in the newsroom, looking grim.
When Bill got home, Marlene told him about the tour, about the red camellias and the crying veterans. “As if this is the first time it occurred to them that they were bombing a perfectly good city,” Marlene said, rolling her eyes, but instead of agreeing, Bill told her she ought to be a bit better about respecting the troops. “How could they have known?” he asked, which Marlene found to be a uniquely stupid response. Still, she swallowed her annoyance. Their couple’s therapist claimed Marlene had a militant relationship with the truth which, apparently, was not always good or healthy. To calm herself, she watched the damp stain blooming around the collar of Bill’s polo shirt. His hair was dripping; he must have showered at the club. His old club hadn’t provided showers, so in the past he’d always come home sweaty and red-faced, but the new club, the one he’d switched to after Marlene learned of his affair, had tiled showers and complimentary shampoo, so Bill always came home smelling of cheap cucumber-scented soap.
Because Marlene was annoyed by Bill’s comment, she didn’t tell him how she’d spent the rest of her afternoon googling virtual reality tours in locations that had experienced bombings or about how she’d read, top-to-bottom, the Wikipedia articles about Leila Khaled and Patty Hearst and Dolours Price, and even ordered a book about Dolours Price from a website that advertised a “Coming-Soon” virtual reality tour of the 1973 Old Bailey Bombing in London. She didn’t tell him, either, that she’d added herself to the email list on the company’s website, marking that she’d learned of the tour through word-of-mouth, since by that point she’d read so many interviews with Dolours Price that Marlene had begun to feel that Dolours herself had told her about the bombing, and about everything that came after the bombing, too.
Marlene did tell Bill eventually, of course, after she received an email from the company letting her know that sign-up was open, and spots were limited. By that point, Marlene was quite familiar with Dolours Price and her sister, Marian. She’d been reading up on all sorts of female bombers and revolutionaries, but the Price sisters were her favorite. Bill referred to them as Marlene’s Violent Femmes, which wasn’t as funny a comparison as he thought.
Marlene booked the tour without telling Bill, but she told him before the credit card statement arrived in the mail. “I’m glad you booked a trip to a country where they speak English,” Bill said, which annoyed Marlene, though it was only a factual statement. They weren’t big travelers. Neither liked to fly. They’d gone to Nantucket for their honeymoon, taken a boat and rented a beach house, the whole trip finished and done with in three short days. Still, Marlene liked to think of herself as a traveler, as someone who would have gone more places if she could, and might still someday, if the circumstances were right. All the female bombers seemed well-traveled—a requirement of the job, Marlene supposed.
Unlike the World War II veterans crying on the sidewalk in Hiroshima, Marlene felt that female bombers better knew and respected the places they chose to bomb. She liked the ones who acted solo, or as part of very small groups, at increased risk of personal sacrifice and with more of a moral high ground. There was something that happened with female bombers too, something like what happened with breakout movie stars. An automatic increase in their capacity for beauty and glamour. Marlene had run this by her therapist. Maybe she admired these women for their ability to make their sacrifices look sexy. She, after all, was constantly making sacrifices and they never increased her sex appeal, in fact they only seemed to make her sadder and older and puffier.
They’d been at their friend’s end-of-summer corn roast when Marlene found out about the affair, Bill drunk on too many Coors Lights pulled from the communal cooler, clearing a wide berth around himself as he danced on the lawn to an acoustic version of “Mustang Sally.” “Man,” Bill said, after returning from a trip to the bathroom with his hands held up to his flushed face. “Was it just the lighting in there or am I red as a beet?”
Marlene looked him over. “It wasn’t the lighting,” she said. “You always get like this when you drink.”
She was only telling the truth, but Bill gave her a look like she’d slapped him. “I always get like what?” he asked.
“Red,” Marlene said. “And terribly self-conscious.”
They left shortly after, Bill’s face doubly flushed from beer and shame. “I can’t believe you’d say that to me,” he said, as they made their way down the long line of cars parked on the side of the road.
“Why?” Marlene asked. “Didn’t you already know the answer when you asked?”
The car ride home was mostly quiet. The radio was turned down low, set to the smooth jazz station that Bill liked to listen to on late-night drives. When they were only a couple miles from home, Marlene said, “I’m sorry I said your face was red. It doesn’t look so bad anymore.”
“Thanks,” Bill said. He touched his cheek. “It’s cooled down a lot.”
Then they were quiet again, and Marlene felt better, having diffused the argument. “It was good corn, wasn’t it?” she said. “It’s always better roasted. Although I felt worried all night that bits of it were stuck in my teeth.” She ran her tongue in a circle over all of her teeth.
“I should probably tell you something,” Bill said. Marlene’s heart sank. Later, she would ask him for details. Who was this woman? How long had it gone on? And the biggest question, the one Bill never answered satisfactorily, how had it started? There had been some kind of fight over Bill’s tendency to swear when he missed a hit, a disagreement that spiraled into a lunch of reconciliation that spiraled into a dinner that spiraled into… Marlene was still not clear on some of the details. When had it become something else? What was the exact moment, the shift in conversation? Or worse, was it always an inevitability? Marlene’s questions spiraled, became increasingly absurd. Had Bill found the fighting erotic? And why had he sworn in the first place? Had he ever sworn at home? What was his intention in using those words, and which words were they, by the way? Were they run-of-the-mill curse words, or really dirty ones, and if they were really dirty ones, as Marlene expected, how could he have used them, really, without the intention of sex? Eventually, Marlene would ask all of these questions, but in the car, when Bill said, red-faced once more and suppressing a bout of hiccups, “I expect you have questions,” Marlene asked nothing at all.
Marlene often felt as though she were asking the wrong questions, or maybe not enough questions in the first place. This, perhaps, was what her therapist meant when she said Marlene had a militant relationship with the truth. She accepted reality in whatever way it first appeared to her, then grew frustrated by contradictions. Bill was always categorizing information as helpful and not helpful, which made Marlene feel that he was keeping something from her. Their therapist had suggested that the information Marlene looked for was not only unhelpful, but actually nonexistent. For example, the therapist claimed that for Marlene, Bill’s affair had started at the corn roast. For Bill, it had started at some other moment, and for the other woman, it had likely started at some third, undisclosed time. Marlene’s insistence on understanding the beginning was useless, was what the therapist was trying to say. “For me, it started when you first came into my office and told me what was going on,” she’d explained to Marlene. “Even though by that time, it’d been weeks since it had begun for you, and even longer since it had begun for Bill.”
This had confused Marlene. “But it never began for you,” she’d argued. “I don’t know why you’re making yourself a part of this at all.”
Sitting in Boston-Logan, waiting to board their plane to Heathrow, Marlene was once again confronted with the possibility that in life, she did not ask enough questions. She was reading about the virtual reality tour on her phone, when she came across an article in a Sinn-Féin-backed newspaper with the headline, “Virtual Reality Tour Makes a Mockery of History.” The article accused the tour company of being culturally divisive, reopening old wounds, and profiting off of technologically advanced trauma porn, geared mostly toward Irish Americans who hadn’t actually lived through The Troubles. Apparently, not all the imagery that had been used was even from the Old Bailey Bombing. Narratives had been included in the virtual reality experience that were entirely fabricated and, the article argued, obscured the original political goals of the bombings in exchange for cheap entertainment value. Marlene read the article a few times, then summarized it for Bill. “Don’t let it bother you,” Bill said. “You know more about these ladies than anybody.”
It bothered her that Bill referred to Dolours and Marian Price as ladies, like they were just a couple of nobodies who lived down from the street from them, but she let it slide. He was right, after all. She’d read everything she could find about them. Written letters, for which she’d never received a response. Considered, seriously, dying her hair red. Gone to the shooting range and fired a gun for the first time in her life. Conducted a small hunger strike in the wake of Bill’s announcement of infidelity, shedding four pounds in a week. And she’d done the spiritual work too—spent hours staring at the wall or the ceiling or the side of Bill’s head, trying to feel what it must have been like, anger and bruises, the smell of rain and pants that hung loose on her hips.
As far as research went, Marlene had only searched for Bill’s girlfriend once. She was listed on the tennis club’s website, named as the winner or runner-up in several local competitions. She seemed to be off social media entirely, though Marlene did locate the woman’s teenage daughter on Instagram and scrolled, secretly, through three years’ worth of the girl’s posts. She’d posted once with her mother, part of a trend calling out the unrealistic beauty standards encouraged by heavily filtered images. The video began with the girl in the passenger seat of a car, laughing. “You guys,” she said, “this filter is crazy.” Marlene couldn’t tell what was so crazy about the filter, though the girl did look very pretty, her blonde hair pulled back in a low ponytail, face round, lips full and pink. “Mom, look at this,” the girl said, and the camera swung left, revealing her mother in the driver’s seat, also blonde, with smooth, youthful skin, and the same dark pink lips as her daughter. The woman laughed at her own image. “That’s not what I look like,” she said, and the camera swung back to the daughter, who did something to remove the filter, revealing herself to be freckled and thin-lipped, though still quite pretty. The video ended on the daughter’s laughing, unfiltered face. It never returned to the mother, so Marlene was left only with the original image, the one the woman had discounted as looking nothing like her. Marlene had spent several minutes trying to imagine an uglier version of the image she’d seen, adding wrinkles and enlarging teeth, but she kept turning the woman into a cartoon in her head, and suspected that she was moving further from the truth of the woman’s face than any Instagram filter could take her.
The tour began at nine, on the morning after they arrived in London. Marlene had read online that early versions of the tour had included casting, in which members of the tour group were assigned actual roles in the mission. Beta testers had ruled it out, since only a few of the characters were any fun to play. No one wanted to be in the car that was forced to turn back, for instance, and no one wanted to play the young woman who’d snitched on the mission either.
Although no one was cast as a specific role, the company had still capped the group at ten participants, which was the official number of bombers who had been captured and tried. Marlene was dismayed to see how many of the other group members arrived in the hotel lobby hungover from the night before, unable to eat much breakfast, though when she remembered that Dolours Price, the leader of the operation, had insisted, unsuccessfully, on total sobriety for the trip, she felt a little thrill. Had the element of casting remained, she would surely have been the most qualified to play Dolours.
Their tour guide, a heavyset, broad-faced man who Marlene judged to be in his early thirties, met the group in the hotel restaurant, while they were still finishing up breakfast. “How’s the food?” he asked them. “Quite good, isn’t it?” The actual bombers, he informed them, had woken before dawn to plant their bombs, but the tour had pushed things back a bit to give the tour groups time to start the day with a proper meal. While they ate, he said, he’d give them a bit of the historical run-down, as well as some background on how the tour was going to work.
Virtual reality was sometimes marketed as a way to experience the whole world from your living room, he said, but this tour was unique in that they’d actually be standing in the place where the events had happened when they donned the goggles. “It’s an important way to experience history,” he said, quoting directly from the mission statement on the company’s website, “bringing the events of the past to life through interaction with the sites of the present.”
When it came to the history, Marlene already knew most of what he had to say, and she nodded along to show that none of the information he had to offer was news to her. He went through the Price sisters’ early life, how their lives were changed by Bloody Sunday. While he spoke, he projected a large image of Dolours Price onto the wall, the one that had appeared in Vogue, with half her face hidden behind a black turtleneck. When he got to the end of his speech he grinned and said, “I won’t spoil anything else for you, except that they all survived. No one died. They were just kids, even the bombers, so I feel it’s important to say that.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Marlene saw Bill nodding very seriously at his plate of beans and eggs.
Someone raised their hand and asked where all the bombers were now. The tour group was mostly retirees (and mostly American—unfortunately the article had been correct in that regard), made up of people who had probably grown up around the same time as Dolours.
“Great question,” the tour guide said, rocking back on his heels. “Marian Price is still involved with the IRA, and was just released from prison a few years back,” he said, flipping to a slide of a long-haired middle-aged woman raising a fist beside a cop with his face blurred out. A few people set their forks down and applauded. “Dolours Price,” he continued. “Well, sad story. She died in County Dublin of a bad mix of pills, while her sister was still shut up behind bars.
She was an alcoholic, near the end.” He flipped to the last slide, an image of an almost unrecognizable Dolours Price, seated on a white couch and staring off into the distance with her hair bleached blonde and a red scarf knotted around her neck.
Marlene turned to Bill. “I don’t know about that,” she whispered. “Doesn’t that feel awfully dismissive?”
Bill shrugged and put his hand on her arm. “Let the man give his tour,” he said, and Marlene whispered back that she’d try her best, as long as the guy wasn’t a total idiot. She was trying to keep the peace today, trying not to spoil the whole experience. She’d pick her battles, she decided, sure that Dolours Price would have done the same.
After breakfast, they were driven in four antique cars, replicas of those actually used to carry out the bombings, to an old brick building, a former army recruitment office in Whitehall. All four vehicles pulled to the side of the street and parked in designated tour spots. When they unloaded from the cars, the tour guide passed out a long black rope for them to hold onto like kids on a school trip. He explained that it wasn’t uncommon for people wearing VR goggles to move in response to what they were seeing. With the rope, he could tug stray members of the group back into line and keep them from wandering into the street or bumping into pedestrians. Then he pointed out the Hillman Hunter, the model of car they were about to watch explode, and told them to lower their goggles.
Marlene slid the goggles down over her eyes and adjusted the strap at the back of her head. The street didn’t look much different, though she was jolted into a lower perspective, finding herself seated behind the wheel of the Hillman as the car inched slowly down the street. She gripped her bit of the rope and tried to tug it in Bill’s direction. She wanted him to know that she was seeing it, the same thing that he was seeing, but she felt the rope tugged sharply back in the other direction. “Whoops,” the tour guide said. “It’s not tug-of-war!” Marlene let the rope go slack again and tried to focus on what she was seeing. Her perspective shifted—she was parking the car, getting out—and now she looked up and realized that the virtual reality available to her in the goggles expanded beyond what she could see in a single instant. She moved her head around, swiveling and craning, looking at brick buildings with white stone corners, at arched windows and awnings and the rest of the cars parked alongside her Hillman. Then she began to move, her legs still while her vision carried her to the end of the street where, though none of the actual bombers had seen the bombs go off, she waited, her palms sweating and her throat constricting just slightly, so that she was forced to breathe louder than she would have liked.
“One moment, nearly forgot!” she heard the tour guide say, and then he was placing a pair of headphones onto her head, and in them she could hear a faint ticking and the sound of soldiers going about their day. One of the soldiers was talking about his girlfriend, how she didn’t seem very interested in him anymore. Then Marlene heard them realize something was wrong. There were five minutes left on the bomb. She saw officers rush the car, an explosives expert break a window and climb inside, and then, moments later, back out. There wasn’t time, he was yelling, and the people in her virtual reality were running from the scene as the Hillman ripped open and exploded in flame. People and cars lifted several inches into the air. Windows shattered. Black smoke billowed from the car, filling Marlene’s vision. She felt herself reach with one hand to try to wipe at her eyes, felt her hand bump the plastic of her goggles. The smoke was a cinematic tactic. When it had filled the screen completely, it faded into a deeper black.
Removing the goggles, Marlene felt dizzy. The street reappeared for her, perfectly whole. She looked at Bill, who seemed stunned as well. “My god,” he said, and Marlene laughed and told him she’d thought she might not be able to hear him, the way people witnessing real explosions sometimes go temporarily deaf.
True to history, no bombs went off at either of the following locations. They went to New Scotland Yard and to the British Forces Broadcasting Services and watched explosives experts dismantle the car bombs. Even at the army recruiting center, the group had received a few looks from annoyed Londoners on their way to work, but at New Scotland Yard they had their first run-in with other tourists. They were a young American couple, dressed all in black, and they laughed when they walked by. Marlene heard one of them say, “Tourists are so embarrassing.” She flushed with shame and pulled her goggles off. At the Broadcasting Services, an elderly man had actually confronted them, spit on the ground and called them uneducated twats. Marlene imagined that he was a loyalist paramilitary and found some pleasure in his insults.
The final stop was outside The Old Bailey, a regal white stone building with columns and a dome set atop a medieval prison. To the left were the more modern courts, housed in a shining black box lined with windows. They stood for a moment to admire the buildings as they were.
When Marlene lowered her goggles, the buildings tinted sepia and she found herself behind the wheel of a green Ford Cortina, navigating into a parallel spot outside of the courthouse. For the final explosion, the VR goggles only guided her a short way away from the car. She watched in close proximity as people filed past, into a nearby pub. A reenacted voice recording of the call made to The Times played through her headphones, a deep Northern Irish voice reciting the times and locations of each planted bomb. It was a bit out of order, the tour guide had explained, but organized for optimal dramatic effect. Before the recording had finished playing, people began running out of the courthouse. Marlene felt the black rope tug as the tour guide led them in slow rotation. A school bus pulled to the curb and a string of children began to disembark. This, Marlene remembered from the article, was supposedly footage shot in Philadelphia for an instructional video on how Kindergarteners ought to disembark from the bus in the event of a fire. She squinted at the kids and decided the article was wrong. The kids looked British to her, with their crewcuts and wool sweaters.
One boy stopped on the steps to adjust his backpack, looking up and down the street, grinning. He had a very long head for a little boy, and bags under his eyes, like he was already very old. Marlene felt panic rise in her chest. She’d never had kids and wasn’t particularly fond of them, but this boy looked so fragile and she felt that by putting on the goggles she was somehow in control of the situation, of this child’s fate. She raised one hand to tug at her goggles, but just then a police officer was running towards the children, pushing them out into the street, away from the bomb. Marlene started to cry. She felt the black rope tug again and circled back to face the Old Bailey.
The tour concluded when the Ford Cortina exploded. Since, virtually, Marlene was at such close range, she experienced the explosion as a thing that happened all around her. The visuals jerked up to replicate the sensation of being thrown into the air, then froze and filled with smoke. According to the tour guide, the beta testers had determined that this was the most satisfying ending for participants. The next bits were less exciting—being apprehended at the airport, put on trial, and imprisoned. The youngest girl on the mission had snitched on the rest of the bombers in exchange for a new identity and the chance to live a quiet life far from the island of Ireland.
When they removed their VR goggles, the group returned to the sidewalk. The courthouse looked whole, with glass in every window. Marlene raised her hand. “I’d like to go again,” she said. “Just, could you rewind it for that last explosion?” She was trying to remember the look on the little boy’s face as he stepped out of the bus. She could picture his smile, but she couldn’t remember how his face had changed when the policeman ran towards him. Had he realized what was going on? Had he started to cry? He was such a small boy, bundled in such a thick blue sweater. Or had it been green? “Please,” Marlene said to the tour guide. “It doesn’t have to be the whole thing, just those last few moments.”
The tour guide handed back Marlene’s headphones and goggles and replayed the scene: the voice listing the locations of the bombs as the bus pulled to the curb, the doors opening, the children disembarking. Marlene searched for the boy. Untethered from the black rope, she tried to move closer, but a hand on her shoulder—Bill’s or the tour guide’s—kept her back. When she spotted him, his long face and wide grin, she called out, “It’s blue. His sweater is blue.” She wanted to reassure the tour guide that she was getting all the answers she needed, but with her headphones on she couldn’t hear whether anyone responded. The policeman was running now, shooing the kids. The image looked a little fuzzy—maybe it hadn’t loaded properly—and as the policeman reached the children, the frame froze for a second. The policeman’s shoulder was blocking the boy’s face. When the scene unfroze, the boy had turned. Marlene could barely make out his blue sweater disappearing into the crowd. And then there was a hand on her shoulder, turning her around. The Cortina exploded. Her field of vision jerked upward. The tour guide paused the experience before the smoke had time to fill her vision. “Seen enough?” he asked.
“No,” Marlene said. “If I could just watch one more time.”
“Marlene,” Bill whispered, but Marlene ignored him. She wanted to see it again, to determine for herself if the kids looked like they were from London or Philadelphia. The tour guide assured her it was a baseless accusation, that all the footage had been shot right there in London. “How could you ever tell anyway?” Bill asked, but Marlene was sure that she could, that she only needed a bit more time to examine the footage.
The other members of the tour group were scuffing their feet on the sidewalk and whispering to each other, but Marlene didn’t care. “Show it to me again,” she said, so the tour guide loaded the image, and Marlene watched as closely as she could, eyes as wide open as they could go. There was the little boy in his blue sweater, and he did look scared, but perhaps he was looking in the wrong direction, away from the bomb. The more she watched, the more disoriented she became. If the footage really was filmed in Philadelphia, was it filmed before or after the Old Bailey Bombing? What knowledge had the little boy grown up with? Either way, Marlene supposed, the boy was only a fictional character. He wasn’t a real boy. Bill’s girlfriend’s voice came back to her, laughing and saying, “This isn’t what I look like.” But it is what she’d looked like, Marlene thought, or that’s what her therapist would say, at any rate.
When Marlene heard the voice in her ear intone, “Old Bailey Courthouse, fourteen forty-nine,” it struck her that the word courthouse sounded out of place, since she had so often repeated the phrase “Old Bailey Bombing,” and almost never stopped to think of what the Old Bailey was in the first place, though that, of course, was the whole point of the tour, of coming to London at all. That afternoon in the living room, sorting Bill’s newspapers, it had been the word bomb that caught her attention, but the news segment hadn’t ever shown the bomb, had it?
They’d shown what the city looked like before, what the veterans had seen through their goggles, and they’d shown the city as it was today, with the veterans blocking up foot traffic. Marlene supposed the image of the atomic bomb was implied, that the news stations assumed that most viewers had seen the mushroom cloud image already, in newspapers or their high school textbooks. But it wasn’t implied, was it? In her search that afternoon, Marlene had learned that the famous image was not a mushroom cloud at all; it had been taken hours after the initial explosions and showed, instead, smoke billowing up from the firestorm on the ground. That was the danger, Marlene thought, in not seeing something for yourself. But no sooner had she thought this than she heard Bill’s voice in her head, saying “What danger? You still got the idea, didn’t you?” And almost as if he’d actually said the words, Marlene felt hands on her shoulders, and she turned in their direction, though all she saw, with the goggles still strapped around her head, were more sepia-toned buildings and a few people she didn’t recognize, backed up against the bricks, too curious to run away.