Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Guns

 ‘I hate him. I hate him so much that I know that I must one day kill him,’ murmured Francisco.
                ‘That is a hard thing to say of your own father.’ But the voice of the older man, half reclining on the ground beside him, registered little surprise. His sightless eyes seemed to gaze at the distant horizon. ‘But I can understand why you should hate him. If, as you said, he killed your mother ...’
                The young man nodded. ‘He met another woman. Before he left he told me that if I breathed a word about what he did to my mother, he would kill me too ...’
                ‘And he is coming back soon?’
                ‘Yes. He will dock in a few days from now.’
*  *  *
It had been some weeks before that Francisco had wandered into the hills in his grief and fear, and discovered the old man, living as a hermit in the deserted army encampment. José was sick, very probably dying. He was almost blind and struggled to forage for what dried and tinned food remained in the store in the wreckage of the barracks. Francisco took pity on him and brought him what he could from the town in the valley to make him more comfortable, and a friendship was forged. Soon he won the old man’s confidence. It was then that José showed Francisco the guns.
                The boy gaped when he first saw them, resting on their massive cradles on the hill top. They were huge and menacing. ‘This pair of guns was made by a British company in the time of the civil war, to defend the port. They are designed to fire 380 millimetre shells, weighing almost a ton for a distance of forty kilometres.’
                ‘In the time of the civil war, you say? But – they look almost new. How can that be?’
                ‘I made it my business to maintain and care for them after the rest of the men left or died. To my mind they are beautiful. To me it is a duty, and one I am proud to honour.’
                ‘How long is it since they ... since they were fired?’
                ‘They have never been fired. Never since their first trials almost eighty years ago. Their very presence kept the port safe. No ship would have dared to challenge them.’
*  *  *
‘José, tell me: if you wanted to fire the guns, would you be able to? I mean, after so long ...’
                The old man laughed when Francisco returned two days later and slung the rucksack off his back. He put the question  purposefully.
                ‘Did I not tell you that they are in perfect condition? Of course, they could be fired. But unfortunately, now, it cannot be done.’
                ‘Why not?’
                ‘Because it takes two men to operate them. Two to load the shells and raise the gun barrels into position. And I am the only man left.’
                ‘Were the only man left. I have joined you now. You could show me and together we ...’
                ‘Francisco, what are you saying? No-one has been near these guns for years, other than you. They have been forgotten. Have any idea how loud they are when they are fired? The hills would be overrun within hours by curious and frightened people, and the police, no doubt, and it would be all up with me.’
                But a gleam in the old man’s sightless eyes told Francisco that his suggestion had sparked a dream. It was like a quiver of excitement, and awakening of a dormant passion. He paused for a minute or so and then said, quietly:
                ‘There are violent storms forecast for tomorrow evening. There is a good chance, surely, that when the guns fire it would be taken for thunder in the hills. Think about it, José: all the dedication and care you have shown in keeping them so well would have a real purpose in the end. And you know you cannot go on for very much longer. Do it for the guns and in honour of your dead comrades.’
                And then he knew he had won the old man over. ‘You are nearly blind, now, José. You cannot see the headland any more. It is exactly twenty kilometres from the gun emplacements. That is where we shall aim’. And it is round that headland that my father is due to sail, at just that time he thought to himself. His eyes closed in anticipation of a dramatic and deadly revenge.
*  *  *
Vincente held the young woman close to him as they gazed across the sea towards the mountains on the far side of the great bay. The weather had become hot and close, and now lightning danced among the distant peaks. An almost constant growl of thunder rolled across the low swell.
                ‘It’s so dramatic – frightening really’. She spoke softly. The man tightened his grip across her shoulders.
                ‘You know, they say that once there were two mighty guns up in the hills to protect the port at the time of the fighting.’
                ‘It’s almost as if they had woken again’. Another thought crossed her mind. ‘Will your boy be safe in this?’ A violent squall was suddenly upon them. They retreated from the ship’s railings under the cover of the deck canopy.
                Vincente shook his head. ‘The young pup will be skulking somewhere in the town. No doubt expecting me to dock in the old fishing boat. But no! Here I am, sailing round the headland in the greatest cruise liner on Earth, in the company of more than a thousand of the world’s wealthiest citizens, one of whom I have married!’
                They did not recognise the sound when first they heard it. But as the low whine grew louder, finally reaching a crescendo, fear gripped their hearts. Like the hissing of a thousand monstrous serpents, the voice of approaching death encompassed and enveloped everything. The great detonation, at last, was beyond their hearing.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Cats' Meat Man

I just can’t believe, Jessica thought to herself, that this is really happening to me.
Jessica Mallow was a little over two hours into the flight from Perth to London. It was the first opportunity she had had to gather her thoughts since she’d got the news of her uncle’s death three days before. His solicitor had telephoned her from Dorchester and told her that he had died in the nursing home where he had lived for the past six months. As his only surviving relative and the single beneficiary in his will, they had agreed that she should make the journey to the UK as soon as could be arranged in order to see to the various matters for which she, as executor, would be responsible. As it happened, it proved fairly straightforward to put off a couple of social arrangements. It suddenly occurred to her to ask how her uncle had died. Did she detect a slight hesitation in the solicitor’s voice? And when he suggested that it was a matter best not divulged until they met, she did not pursue it. At least Uncle Jim has timed his departure conveniently: Jessica was a teacher, and the school holiday has just begun.
It was just about the only thing he had done that was in any way convenient for Jessica. She had not known him that well, but what she did know of him led her to conclude that he was stubborn, cantankerous and possessed of a sense of humour that could only be described as cynical, even cruel. As a child in England, on the rare occasions when he had come to see her mother, who was his sister, he and her father had argued bitterly. “Jim’s barmy,” her father would say, “plain barmy. And he hasn’t a good word to say about anyone or anything. Except for those bloody cats of his.”
Her mother was more charitable in her view, although Jessica knew that she was often perplexed by him. “I think you’re being a bit hard on him, David. Spending so much time on his own has made him a bit, well, odd. But I wouldn’t say it’s anything more than oddness. He’s eccentric – that’s it, eccentric.”
Eccentric Uncle Jim certainly was. And yes, any propensity for affection that lurked within his psyche was focussed entirely and solely upon his two Burmese cats which were admittedly beautiful, but spoiled rotten.
And then there was his Will. When last she had returned to England some five years previously he had asked her to pay him a visit, or rather, had summonsed her to his presence.
“So, girl, tell me – do you have any idea how much I’m worth?” He had glowered at her from beneath his shaggy eyebrows as he sat in a dilapidated armchair, one Burmese cat on his lap.
“I never gave it much thought, Uncle,” she’d replied. But looking about her, she thought not very much given the mean state of the room where he had taken to living for most of the time. But Jim had something of a reputation of being a miser, at least so far as her father had been concerned.
He had picked up her furtive scan of the shabby living room. “Don’t be deceived by appearances. I need little enough these days. I don’t live like this for want of means, you know.”
It had not occurred to Jessica that he had called her to discuss any sort of inheritance that might come in her direction. Since the death of her parents, within a year of each other, she had a fair idea that she was his only remaining flesh and blood. She had communicated with him rarely over the years that she had been in Australia, because, well because she really didn’t like him. She’d guessed he must know this. So why on earth would he want to leave anything to her?
“No matter,” he’d continued, “the fact is that everything I have is coming to you when I die. Who the hell else would I leave it to? There is no-one else.” Observing to look of confusion on his niece’s face he chuckled briefly, “I’m not the sort of fool who’d leave it all to a cats’ home, you know. Too many damned cats ...”
“Uncle, I’ve never thought, never expected ...”
“Oh, I know that. I’m not a fool. I know you. The decision wasn’t automatic, you know. I’ve been watching you.” She had wondered how on earth she could have been watching her when she was on the other side of the world, but she didn’t challenge him. “I don’t have much of an opinion of people in general.” For a moment he had seemed to struggle. “But you ... I think you are … well, you have a level head on your shoulders at least. Probably make less of a pig’s ear of it than most.” He had actually, with great effort, paid her a compliment. She was taken aback.
He reached over to a shelf, the cat jumping off his lap with a growl of objection, and grasped a parchment envelope. “But there are conditions,” he’d continued. He fixed her with a hard gaze.
“This is my Will. Essentially it leaves everything, virtually everything, to you. I won’t tell you how much, but it’s not to be sniffed at. One of the conditions is that you do not open it until after I am dead. If you do, it will become invalidated. The details are contained in it –what is to happen if you were to disobey me in this respect. The other is that certain things, very straightforward things, are to be done when I die. These instructions are to be carried out. If they are not, then again, it will be rendered invalid and the estate goes elsewhere.”
For a few moments Jessica had remained speechless. She felt confused. He had seen, probably expected this, and waited in silence while she took it in. “Do you understand?” he’d said at last.
She nodded. “Yes. Oh, I’m sorry, Uncle, to sit here like an idiot. I’d really not expected ... it’s terribly good of you ...”
He had shaken his head. “Well, best wait until I kick the bucket. You may be in for a bit of a ... a surprise.” Had there been a touch of malevolence in the faint smile that has crossed his face? It was that that had remained fixed in her memory of him, and troubled her from time to time over the years. She never saw him again.
Back home, Jessica had put the sealed envelope away in a secure box file where she kept other important documents: her birth certificate, marriage certificate and the paperwork relating to her divorce. She gave it little thought, and it never occurred to her to break her undertaking to Uncle Jim.
With the passing of years her memories of the old man dulled. She settled into the routine of her work and occupied herself with friends and her various interests. She engaged in a brief affair with a married man, which she herself ended when she sensed that she was being used and she could see no future in it for her. Contact with her uncle was occasional and brief, confined almost entirely to and exchange of cards at Christmas. He gave her no news of himself, although she wondered latterly if his health was failing. His few words seemed to be written by a trembling hand. The Christmas immediately before his death brought no card at all.
The telephone call from the solicitor, while not entirely a surprise, provoked a spasm of guilt. She had never really taken in that she was probably going to benefit, and quite substantially, when he died. Should she have done more for him in his last years? But he had never once asked her for anything, and had never said nor written anything that suggested that he had the least interest in her.
When the news of his death had sunk in, she recalled his insistence that she should not read his will before the event. She wondered, had she done so, how she might be found to have been in breach of his directive. And his making very clear the consequences of failing to carry out his instructions stipulated in the will itself had made her wonder just what it was that he had wanted done after his death. So when she retrieved the envelope and slipped the paper knife under the flap, she had felt a sense of trepidation.
Now, staring down at the shifting cloudscape below her she remembered the sense of horror and disgust that had nearly overwhelmed her when she had read and re-read her uncle’s will. Yes, he had indeed left all his very considerable wealth to her. But the condition he had set had provoked a flood of nausea, which returned to her in waves when she thought about it. Could she go through with it? Would she be allowed to go through with it? Really, she wondered, would any amount of money in the world compensate for having to arrange something so utterly gross?
When she had convinced herself that she had not misunderstood anything – it was certainly clear enough – she had slipped the document back in its envelope. At this moment it was in a pocket in the large case that had been stowed in the hold of the aircraft. But she could recall the condition that Uncle Jim had set word for word:
On the matter of the disposal of my bodily remains I give the following instruction and make the leaving of my estate to my niece Jessica Mallow conditional upon this being carried out: that my body be dismembered, rendered and processed in such a way that it may be sealed and preserved in cans, and used to feed my two cats until all the processed remains have been so disposed in this way. There had been more, but even the briefest reflection on it turned her stomach.
Just what the hell did he imagine I was going to do? She pondered, telephone the local Kittymeat factory and ask them to do a special job for me? There’s surely got to be some law against such … such depravity.
She shook her head. No. I don’t think I could go through with this. For any money.
She spent the rest of the flight and the twelve hour stop over in Hong Kong restless and troubled. She pondered over what Uncle Jim’s solicitor would have to say about it. Might he be able to find a way out of this? Could the will be deemed invalid on the grounds of … of insanity?
It was not until she booked into the hotel in London that she was at last able to rest. She slept for almost twelve hours.
On the afternoon of the day after her arrival she made her way to her uncle’s solicitor’s office in a suburb of west London. After a brief wait she was ushered in to his office by the receptionist. He greeted her with a smile and a handshake, enquired after her journey, and motioned her to a chair. He introduced himself as David Tilley.
“Well, firstly, Miss Mallow, may I offer you my condolences on the loss of your uncle. I imagine it was something of a shock to you.”
She shrugged. “Well, I didn’t know him that well. We were only in touch once or twice a year. And, please, call me Jessica. The ‘Miss Mallow’ thing … well …’
‘Of course – Jessica. So – now I expect that you are anxious to discuss the content of your uncle’s Will. My understanding is that he stipulated that you should not know the content of it until after his death?’
The young woman nodded.
‘And – may I ask, have you read it?’
‘I have. And I am – I am …’
David Tilley raised his right hand, in a gesture clearly intended to preclude any elaboration she may have intended. ‘Forgive my interrupting,’ he said, ‘but I think it best that we leave the, er, detail of the directives contained in it. There is something I need to talk to you about first. You did ask me, when we spoke before you flew over here, about how your uncle died …’
‘Yes. And you told me that you thought it best that …’
‘Quite. Well, I can tell you now …’ he looked down at his hands and seemed momentarily agitated, ‘I am sorry to have to give you this news Miss Mallow – Jesicca – but your uncle died in a fire in his room at the nursing home where he was a resident.’
‘Oh my God …’
‘As you may know, the home is a converted manor house. It seems that he was trying to burn some of his papers in the hearth. He had fairly advanced Parkinsons disease, you know. It’s not difficult to see how the … accident … may have happened’.
‘The poor man. How dreadful’.
‘Yes. Dreadful indeed. Fortunately the fire services attended very quickly. Although everything in his room was destroyed, there was little damage outside it. And thankfully, no-one else was injured.’
Jessica remained silent, absorbing the impact of what she had been told. After some moments, a question began to form on her lips. Once more the solicitor interrupted her. ‘I understand that the heat was very, very intense. There was hardly anything left – nothing recognisable’.
The young woman looked across at him. And an understanding seemed to pass between them.
‘Perhaps I need to reassure you,’ David Tilley continued, ‘that there is no reason than I can see why this regrettable event in any way affects his leaving of his estate to you. Some – other - things may be best put aside, if you follow me.’
‘But I just wonder …’
‘Yes, Jessica?’
‘His cats … what happened …?’
‘Oh, his Burmese cats. No, they weren’t there. They were very old in any event. Just two weeks before he died the matron called in the vet. Because of his illness your uncle Jim wasn’t able to care for them any more. Naturally he was very upset. But it was for the best.’

‘Yes of course. For the best’. And she rose to take her leave.

Thursday, 18 June 2015


You ask too many questions.

Alison glances over my shoulder and then shifts her gaze away from me as if her attention has been caught by something on the distant sea shore. She scowls. Close to us a wren bursts into song. Her scowl deepens.

You ask too few.

There’s no need. I accept, you see. How can you find any meaning to your life when you believe in nothing?

Now you’re the one asking questions. Only I think that you haven’t the least interest in what my answer might be. Or perhaps you might be afraid of what my answer might be.

She looks back at me, peering at my face over her glasses. She seems to be searching for something. Some clue. But she won’t find anything. She’s not capable of it. And neither is she capable of acknowledging any challenge so far as her faith is concerned. It’s not up for scrutiny.

Michael – questions are being asked …

Questions, questions. You really have a problem with questions …

No, seriously. It’s that … that book you’ve written.

Which book? To date I’ve written seven – six published.

Her lips purse. And a hint of a flush intrudes upon the pallor of her unmade up cheekbones. My sister, scholarly and confident as she is, seems suddenly to be thrown. She looks down at her feet, then back at me.

You know which book.

Then refer to it by its title.

Of course I know which book she means. It appeared on the shelves, oh, three months ago, and it has caused quite a stir among literary circles and the wider public. I was never under any illusion that my sister would share my satisfaction, delight even, at its success. She had been, in fact, quite angry and seemed convinced that I had timed its publication deliberately to coincide with what she thought, no doubt, was a pinnacle, if not the pinnacle of her career. And, you know, I don’t think I can disagree with her entirely.

I won’t – I won’t utter any such blasphemy. I mean, it’s foul ...

I nod. Really, she is sometimes beyond my ability to understand. And then I smile.
You know, Alison, I really think that were it ever to be in your power, you would issue a fatwa against me. Your sort were burning people like me at the stake just a few hundred years ago. The way you go on, anybody would think you’d like to turn the clock back. This time, though, you may have to satisfy yourselves with a bonfire in the cathedral precincts
Oh, don’t be so childish ...

A few drops of rain fall from the darkening sky, and a squally wind whips through the bare hedges.

Better come back into the vicarage.

She puts her hand up to her dog collar, as if seeking to adjust it in order not to appear in any way less than seemly in her domain. She leads the way to the back door of the house and into the spacious living room.

Is this one new? I ask. I am looking at a tall clock standing at the far end of the room.
Oh – Yes. David bought it for me. It’s rather fine, don’t you think?

‘Rather fine’ is an understatement. I know a lot about clocks and a little about antique clocks – even if nothing like as much as does my sister – and I would guess that this specimen is early nineteenth century. It wouldn’t surprise me if doting, doddering husband David had parted with a good five grand or more to please the wife he adores. And as if in a rejoinder to a compliment it begins to strike the hour – four o’clock - a split second ahead of the five other similar clocks, great and small, in the room. The clanging, chiming and discordant ding-donging grates a little. We remain silent, unable to talk over the clamour, until the last reverberation is spent.

Well, I hope that you are well insured. And that you’ve got good locks. Matthew 6:19 and all that ...

I can’t resist the dig.

Alison’s look would freeze hell. Damn you she almost spits at me.

I feign surprise. Such language, I say, from a woman who will soon be one of only the handful of women consecrated as bishops in the Church of England.

*  *  *

Later, in my own home in the less salubrious quarter of the city, I find myself speculating over the way in which our paths in life have diverged in the way they did. I have always been quite clear about it, although I suspect that Alison never really understood. She is some two years older than I, and as a child was rather bookish and solemn. Our mother had died when I was six. Father took over our care as best he could, with live in help. He was a churchgoer, although I had no reason to think that his faith had any depth to it. Surprisingly, it was at about that time that he gave his daughter and son a free choice as to whether we would like to join him at the Sunday services. Alison never hesitated in her reply. And neither did I. Father seemed quite unfazed by my response, although I can remember Alison looking quite aghast when she heard me. ‘Father, you must make him’ she had said. He just replied, firmly, ‘No’ And that was the end of the matter. And if Alison did not understand me, she might have done well to speculate upon the fault she had found in me earlier that afternoon – it was all a matter of questions ... questions. You see, even at that tender age I had the makings of a scientist. Also I was an atheist, even if I did not know it then, and it was only many years later that I started to read widely on the subject, and then to write about it.

For a moment my attention is caught by the object standing on its own in the centre of the low coffee table in the middle of the room. It is a water clock – a replica of an ancient Roman original. My ‘time machine’ I call it. It is the only timepiece in the room. And I find myself remembering a book I found in our school library at about the same time as the decision that sent Alison and me upon our separate ways: ‘Man Must Measure’ by Lancelot Hogben. Since then I have remained fascinated by mankind’s attempts to measure all things, ever more accurately.

Alison has devoted almost her entire life, I think to myself, on matters lying out of the reach of science and measurement, obtaining her doctorate on a premise of no less than a colossal delusion. And I obtained mine working on the cold caesium atomic clock in Switzerland. Perhaps she thinks me just as deluded ...

*  *  *

Alison does not contact me again in the few days remaining before her consecration, although I do receive a formal invitation to attend the ceremony. Even though I have not received a letter from her for many years I recognise her copper-plate hand writing in the turquoise ink that always seemed strangely affected for a woman not given to idiosyncrasies. I place it on the mantle shelf, unopened.

On the day itself I remain at home. Maybe I am a little odd, but I find something quite sinister in men and women in robes, light and dark, en masse, much though I love places of worship for their beauty, their sublime music and their sense of intrigue. In due course I glance at my time-piece on its place on the table. It suggests – within the stricture of its limited accuracy – that things must be well underway.

The telephone rings. It is David. I am surprised and think at first that that my water clock is being perverse, and badly out of synchronisation with Greenwich mean time. A quick glance at my wrist watch tells me that this is not so.

David is evidently flustered. Where is she?


Alison, of course.

At the cathedral, surely, with all of you.

No ... no. She never arrived. Has she been in touch with you?

No. I’ve heard nothing from her for days ...

In the early evening, when the tide is receding, a man walking his dog finds a woman’s body among the rocks at the bottom of the cliff.

They are not long in identifying her. It is Alison. She used often to walk on the high cliffs when meditating or in prayer, and it is soon assumed that this is what she was doing on the morning of her consecration.

Later two police officers call round with questions. I do not think I am of much help to them. Tell me, I say, do you think that she just went a little too close to the edge? Or did she ...

No. There is nothing to suggest that it was anything but a tragic accident. She left no note, and so we have nothing to substantiate any suggestion that she might have taken her own life. No doubt you will all be very relieved to hear that.

No doubt ...
*  *  *
The next day the usual bundle of mail drops through the letter box. I am in the habit of receiving a certain amount of what can only be described at hate-mail, mostly from people who do not like what they are told I write. I can hardly imagine that they actually read it. They devise various fates for me at the hand of their gods. Most I recognise without even opening the envelopes, for they are betrayed by their semi-literacy or inability to spell my name. And these I consign to the fire.

The last in the bundle causes me suddenly to draw breath. The writing is copper-plate and the ink turquoise. I pick up the paper knife. Then I hesitate and place it back upon the table. I look at the writing, and then look again into the blazing hearth.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Back to Blogging

I've lapsed - seriously - in my posts. I suppose it happens to a great many bloggers. This is not to say that I am not writing any more. But most of my stuff I have been sharing with a writers group that meets monthly in London. Maybe the inspiration has fallen off, and there have been other preoccupations. My wife has experienced two tragic bereavements in the past year - her 25 year old nephew died suddenly and unexpectedly (undiagnosed heart condition) in 2014 and his father - my wife's youngest brother - 11 months later at the age of 60. She has needed a lot of support, poor thing, and I only wish I was better at giving it.

Should I resolve to post once a week, I wonder? But my life is a tale of broken resolutions. But we'll see ...

Wednesday, 11 September 2013



Today they told me that I have a grand-daughter. How that can be? But they have told me so much that makes no sense. I begin to wonder if, somewhere along the line, I have quite lost my wits.

            Her name is Shenandoah.

When the expedition was launched I had … well, I had a daughter. Just a kid – five years old. So how could I have a grand-daughter? Are they playing some game with me? But surely they wouldn’t be so cruel. Rather, they seem endlessly concerned for me. And they are keeping something back. I know it.

There’s nothing wrong with my memory, I’m certain. I remember very clearly the day that the catastrophic power failure crippled the ship completely and for good. We knew what we had to do to survive. It would delay our return home, but not by so very much. I might miss Sarah’s sixth birthday, perhaps her seventh. But when I eventually made it back she would still be my little girl and, one way or another, we would make up for lost time.
* * *
The desert had a strange loveliness about it. In the light of evening it became pink. The wind-sculpted sandstone reminded me of Petra – Rose red city, half as old as Time. And I think back on it as I try to make sense of the situation I find myself in now. Why won’t they answer my questions? ‘A stage at a time’ is all they say. I think they are preparing me for a shock. A revelation of something dreadful that has happened. When I asked them if the other crew members survived it was their hesitation – and what they didn’t say – that has made me certain that they did not. Some at least must have perished and been left behind. Maybe, in some way, they think I may be to blame for that. I was, after all, the life-support officer. An enquiry – I am sure there will be one – might indeed conclude that I was responsible through a failure of duty. But I don’t remember …
            I think again of the vast expanse of rust-red hills. Not so much so much John Burgon and his magical city, but Yeats and his vision of a ‘terrible beauty’. That was the truth of it.
* * *
Oh! Shenandoah. I have become increasingly curious about the child, my flesh and blood indeed, whom I have never seem. I long to see you
            They told me very gently today that my daughter, Sarah, is dead. For some reason I didn’t erupt into hysterical weeping as you would have thought any normal mother would do. Later, on my own, I cried quietly and for a long time.
            I looked up my grand-daughter’s name. It seems it is an old native American name meaning ‘daughter of the stars’. How beautiful and strange.
* * *
Today the doctor – I think she is a doctor – talked to me alone for more than an hour. I think that they are preparing me for something.
            ‘How are you feeling since … the retrieval?’ She hesitated as if the term were somehow unfamiliar to her.
            ‘Why, I’m fine. Or I would be if everyone here wasn’t so mysterious.’
            She wasn’t going to be drawn on that one. ‘Your memory … how well can you recall the events leading up to … the power failure?’
            ‘Fine. But it was chaotic, scary. For a while we didn’t know if any of us would survive. No wonder things are a little cloudy now.’
            ‘Hmmm – but you knew what you had to do. You’d been trained to react quickly in such a situation.’
            ‘I don’t know what you’re getting at.’
            ‘You need to accept from me that your memory of events is quite incomplete. Can you think of any other reason why that might be so?’
            I shook my head. ‘You’ve lost me.’
            She put her hand on mine and smiled. ‘Don’t worry. We expect a full recovery in time.’
* * *
My name is Anna Hamilton. I am – was – the chief life support scientist on the interplanetary ship Endeavour. I am about thirty three years old, although that is perhaps less certain than it was at the time of launching.
            I’m thinking about the grand-daughter I’ve never met again. And that old song. The Wide Missouri had nothing … nothing … on the gulf that separated me from her when she was born. I am talking about the tens of millions of kilometres between Earth and the planet Mars. About Shenandoah they’ve told me virtually nothing. They’ve told me that she knows who I am and that I am coming home. They’ve promised that I will see her ‘soon’ but they were evasive when I asked if I might see a photograph of her. Is she ugly then, deformed even?
            They are pressing me again about my recollection of what happened on Mars. ‘Did they tell you,’ asks the doctor, ‘how long it would be before a rescue mission could be mounted?’
            ‘Of course,’ I reply. ‘The second transit had been planned even before we set out. It wasn’t intended to be a rescue mission. It was going to happen anyway. It was due to enter Mars orbit in about two more years. But you know that.’
            A momentary change in her expression, the start of a frown, quickly concealed, tells me that she doesn’t know. What’s with the woman? What else doesn’t she know?
            ‘What made you decide to suspend?’ I think this is a diversion tactic. ‘Couldn’t you have sat it out? I would have thought you’d have found plenty to occupy yourselves …’
            I shake my head emphatically. ‘No. We’d not sufficient food and supplies to last that long. Not enough air. Nothing like enough to last two years.’
            ‘Then what about power to maintain the hyber-units?’
            I shake my head again. ‘No – that wasn’t a problem. We had a fission-pile. About the size of  asmall fridge.  It could have kept us going for, well, for centuries.’
            The colour drains from her face.
*  *  *
This time it is an eager young man who interviews me. Unlike the woman, he introduces himself.
            ‘Hi Anna. I’m Dr Jackson. But call me Bud.’
            I guess that he is a scientist or something.  He doesn’t quite come over as a medical doctor.
            ‘Hi Bud. So what is it you want to ask me this time?’ I think he senses the weariness in my voice. I am tired of these sessions.
            ‘Not very much, you’ll be pleased to hear. And then I may have something to tell you. Something we feel that you are … ready to hear.’
            My ears prick up. Immediately, a question forms on my lips, but I supress it. These people always seem to react negatively to being pressured. Instead I say, ‘OK. So fire away then.’
            He looks at some papers that he has taken from a small case, and then looks up at me. ‘My understanding is that you led a section at Pasadena, at the Jet Propulsion Unit.’ The hint of hesitation before his reference to the JPU makes me wonder for a moment.
            ‘Yes. But you must know that, of course. I and my colleagues developed the science of placing people in suspended animation. When it had been perfected it … it opened the door for long distance manned space exploration.’
            Bud’s eyes open wide. Now I cannot help myself. ‘Bud – what is all this? You react as if I’m telling you something entirely new …’
            He tenses, then relaxes again. He fixes his eyes on mine. ‘The fact is, Anna, that there is a lot that you don’t know.’
            ‘Like what?’
            He takes a breath. ‘Just a few weeks after you and your colleagues … suspended, the West Coast of America came under attack. It was unprovoked, unexpected and … devastating. Much of California was laid waste …’
            I am speechless. He waits for me to absorb the impact of what he has said. Then, ‘The response of the United States was immediate and proportionate. The rogue state that launched the attack was identified and … annihilated. Fortunately a global thermonuclear exchange was averted – just. But the repercussions were profound and worldwide. Recovery took … took a long time. It was inevitable that all further plans for space exploration lapsed.’
            Bud will not be drawn on timescales. Soon he draws the interview to a close. I guess he has given me all the information I am going to get for now. He takes his leave. As he passes through the door a leaf of paper drops, unnoticed, from the bundle of documents he is clutching. I am about to alert him, but instead wait until the door is closed and go over to retrieve the page. I glance at it. ‘Just some stupid memo,’ I murmur to myself. This lot are certainly odd. Even the date is wrong. I mean, it is a century out.
*  *  *
I had such a strange dream last night. I was dreaming of my grandmother. Yes, my grandmother. She died when I was, oh, about 10 years old. I remember quite a lot about her. But in this dream I, well, I remembered pretty well everything. Her voice even. Normally old ladies have cracked, quite high pitched voices. But her’s was a sort of contralto. Low and sensuous. Otherwise she was much as you would expect someone seriously old to be – deeply wrinkled skin and glasses with lenses so thick that it made her eyes sink back almost like pin-heads into her skull. And her hair was straight, short and the colour of steel.
            She spoke to me.  Her voice was earnest, as if she were desperately trying to get some message to me across the years. I’ve tried so hard to recall what it was she was saying. But I just can’t.
*  *  *
They are looking furtively at me. Then they talk among one another again. Something of great moment is to happen today. I can guess what it is. But why are they so reluctant to come clean with me?
            The doctor – the woman – has approached me. It seems to cost her such an effort. Her eyes glisten as if she is trying to fight back tears.
            ‘Anna,’ she says, ‘the time has come.’
            ‘The time for what?’ But I know what. I think I am goading her.
            ‘For you to meet your grand-daughter, for you to meet Shenandoah at last’.
            I nod.
            ‘ She will be able to … to answer all the questions we have not answered.’
            ‘The questions you were afraid to answer’.
            She nods slowly, so slowly.
            ‘My God’, I say. ‘There you are, so high and mighty … so advanced. And yet when it comes to the things that really matter you’ve all just funked it. You have to leave it all to … to a child’.
            They can be in no doubt of the contempt, the utter contempt I feel for them now. You’d think they’d blush with shame. I gaze at them for many moments, but I see no shame. Just … well, just  sorrow. And an icy hand grips my heart.
* * *
The room is spacious. Tables and comfortable chairs are scattered throughout its length. At first I think, apart from the furniture, it is empty. But no – at the far end there is a figure seated. Alone. Whoever it is sits quietly, gazing out of a small window.
            I see that it is a woman. She would seem not to know that I am there. But I think she is only too aware of my presence.  And indeed she turns towards me. I approach her and she looks straight into my eyes.
            And I know that this is she.
            And I seem to return to that strange dream. The wrinkled skin.The thick glasses.The steel grey hair. And then she speaks, her voice a low contralto.
She peaks her name.
            Oh God

Friday, 30 August 2013


It was a good cover, mused Bryony as the train gradually put on speed and dropped down into the mouth of the tunnel. How little her innocuous-looking travelling companions knew of the momentous role she was about to play.
            For a few moments her mind played with the encrypted message that had propelled her into this venture. The attacking unit rendered the plant permanently ineffective. However, they found evidence that a quantity of fissile material had been removed prior to the operation. The likelihood is that there was sufficient to construct a device …
            ‘Excuse me’, the girl seated opposite her leaned forwards and broke her reverie, ‘but aren’t you Professor Walters from Pasadena?’
            ‘I am. But I hardly expected to be recognised here, in Europe. Can I ask how you came to know who I was?’
            ‘But you’re famous! I mean, the work you’re doing. It’s groundbreaking!’
            ‘But how did you come to know …?
            ‘The recent review in The Scientific American – on your paper on interplanetary travel. I’m doing an ‘A’ level in physics. And I read it of course.’
            Bryony was really too preoccupied with more immediately pressing concerns to engage in polite conversation with an admirer. Little she knew about the other – secret – side of her life as a specialist agent with Interpol. And God, what a creature she looked. If she came to me for an interview for a place in my department she’d get short thrift. Why on earth would she be interested in what a top scientist had to say. Surely some pop idol would have more appeal to her.Some of the other passengers looked up from their books and newspapers and whatever else occupied them. A smartly dressed elderly woman murmured, ‘space travel … I always wondered how all that expense could be justified with all the poverty in the world …’
            Bryony did not rise to the remark. She had had to justify what she did so many times in the past that now she wearied of it. Another passenger, a tall,white haired man commented, ‘You may be right. But there’s something more noble about space exploration that the obscenity that’s just about to start in Paris.’
            ‘The G8?’ put in another, a younger, smartly dressed woman. ‘Face facts – this is the 21st century. Don’t believe all you hear from the anti-capitalists …’
            A heated conversation ensued. Bryony kept quiet and looked away. In the corner of the compartment was the one other passenger who showed no sign of interest in the argument being flung backwards and forwards. A tall, gaunt young man, shabbily dressed. Bryony noticed the aluminium case that he had pushed under the seat, now part concealed by his incongruously polished shoes. Odd, too, that she should be holding a copy of the Financial Times. He came over more as an impecunious artisan than anyone with an interest in investments and economics.
            As the exchangegrew even more heated she found her thoughts drifting again. … which would have a yield of up to 10 kilotons. Serious consideration must be given to the possibility that such a weapon might have got into the hands of an extremist group. It is essential that all Western governments be vigilant …
            ‘Anyway’ an elegant, expensively dressed young man with a French accent put in, ‘I do wonder if you’ve all chosen to visit my capital city at the right time. The security is going to be very tight. It might not be easy to get around.’
            You are certainly right there, mused Bryony, but you can have no idea just how tight it will be. And what it is that we are out to prevent. And that should that security fail you, me and tens – no, hundreds – of thousands of other people will be dead by this time tomorrow.’
            For the first time the tall, unkempt youth looked up and gazed quizzically at the Frenchman.
            The train slowed down, coming eventually to a halt. Bryony wondered what was going on. She guessed that they must be just about half way through the Channel Tunnel.
            … we believe that the device is intended to be detonated by a sophisticated timing mechanism, giving whoever places and conceals it time to get well away before it detonates …
            Minutes passed. The train remained completely stationary. At last an announcement echoed through its length:
            ‘Ladies and gentlemen – we are very sorry to inform you that there has been a major security alert and we have been told not to proceed. It may be that we cannot continue with our journey until tomorrow morning. We deeply regret the inconvenience that this will cause’.
            Bryony saw the look of horror on the shabby young man’s face. His legs flexed as if trying to push the metal case away from him under the seat.

            A hand of ice gripped her heart.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Silver Chain of Sound

‘Bill – please switch that off!’
            We were approaching a junction. ‘Lost your taste for the classics?’
            ‘No. Of course not. It’s a lovely piece. Reminds me of …. But they play it at least once every day on this channel. One day they’ll play it to death.’
            I could see her point. It was an ‘easy listening’ station that certainly didn’t set out to challenge its listeners. I turned it off.
            Mary fell silent as I negotiated the traffic.
            ‘Reminds you of something, you say? Or someone?’
            I sensed her brief nod. ‘Yes. Benbo. It reminds me of a special time with Benbo. So when I listen to it, I have to be in a particular sort of mood. And alone.’
            We said little more for the rest of the journey. Both lost in our thoughts, I guess, and in our grieving. She for her husband and I for a much loved younger brother. Ahead of us lay the painful task of going through his papers and other, more personal belongings.
            The music stayed with me as we worked and sorted together. When at last she spoke again as we sipped coffee on her patio it was clear that her mind had been caught up just as had mine. It was as if our exchange in the car had happened only moments ago.
            ‘It was the day you went whale-watching, off the peninsula on the south-east coast. Benbo hadn’t the strength to join you. He said the drugs were making him quite sick enough without the effects of heaving around on an open boat.’
            ‘Yes. I remember. The gale had blown itself out overnight, and it was a fine day. But the sea was wild enough. We did see the whales, but they were miles off. It’s not something I’d do again in a hurry.’
            ‘I never told you what Benbo and I did while you were out there.’ Her expression spoke of a treasured memory.
            I waited. I sensed that she wanted to share something with me. But she didn’t speak immediately. Instead she went to a drawer in her desk and took from it a disc. I had a feeling that it was the Vaughan Williams, and I was right. This time we sat together in silence for a quarter of an hour and heard it right through to its last, vanishing cadence.
            Mary began to talk again. Softly and lovingly. ‘It cost him such an effort to walk even the half mile on to the meadows that surround the light-house. But at last we got where he wanted to. It was a place he’d always loved. I think he knew that this would be the last time. I sat on the grass and cradled his head on my lap, running my fingers through the little that was left of his hair. His eyes closed, but the look of ecstasy on his face was something that I will keep with me for always. Dear Benbo – his sight was almost gone then. But even I could not have seen what he would have sought in the sky, so vanishingly small it had become. “Poor old Bill,” he murmured. ‘He must be as sick as a dog out there. And how could whales – all the whales in the ocean, compare with that?”’
            ‘He always saw the best in the smallest things. He had a gift for it’.
            ‘Uh-huh’, Mary nodded. ‘The smallest things. And on that afternoon it was in the song of the smallest of birds that I think he had his first glimpse of heaven’.
*  *  *
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound.
From George Meredith (1828-1918)
The Lark Ascending.