Sunday, 22 April 2012


Blessed morphine … the pain is receding. Sister looks down on me and smiles. 

            ‘Are you feeling more comfortable now, Hector? 

            I nod and murmur my thanks. They are universally kind here at St Anthony’s. She leaves the room softly. I fall into a light sleep. 

            Time passes. Minutes, perhaps half an hour or so. And suddenly I am wide awake. Someone is standing at the end of the bed. A girl in uniform, a care assistant I guess. I think I have not seen her before. Yet there is something almost familiar. A memory … 

            ‘Hello Father,’ she has a faint accent. I think it may be German. They must have told her who I am, though soutane and surplice are locked away in the cupboard by the door. Probably they will remain there. I think I shall not robe for Mass again. ‘Sister asked me to come and see how you are.’ 

            I peer at her, squinting a little to try to make out her name badge. There is something about her hair – a chord of music drifts through my head. Debussy - La fille aux cheveux de lin. And her eyes – she smiles with her eyes. 

            ‘My name is Isolde …’ 

            Yes. Of course. Your name is Isolde. And I begin to wonder if I am dreaming. 

*  *  * 

Her name was Isolde. I can remember when we first met. It was on a river boat, hired for a party given by the parents of mutual friends. She told me that her father was in the Swiss diplomatic service, on a posting to London. She was a few months past her seventeenth birthday, and I just a year older. Her English was near perfect, yet she seemed somehow to be out of place there. And because I was inclined to shyness then, we stayed talking together, perhaps finding security in each other’s company. And I think by the end of that evening, several hours later, I was already in love with her. We had become soul-mates in the briefest space of time. 

            In those days there was still an essential innocence that was common to most young people who found themselves in love. By that I mean, there was not the urgency to consummate, to sleep together at a time when they barely knew each other’s names. The age of free love had not yet dawned, although it was very near and would in the not so distant future affect us both in very different ways. Then there were codes of behaviour and unwritten rituals to be adhered to. Yet I cannot imagine otherwise than that our hand holding and gentle caresses were any less exquisite than the long nights of passion that seem to be the norm today. No – I don’t think I am being old-fashioned: I really believe that something precious has been lost in the search for and indeed the insistence upon instant gratification. 

            As the weeks went by we met often. We would take the train out of London to be in places where we could be alone together and delight in each others company. Yet even then we knew that our time together must draw to a close. Isolde had gained a place at the University of Lucerne to read English Literature, and would be leaving England in the autumn. At the same time her father’s posting would end and the family return to Switzerland. I suppose I had hoped that I might visit her there, perhaps at Christmas, but I perceived a barrier: Isolde’s family were strict Lutherans and I was a Catholic. And besides I was … I am, black. 

            One day late in the summer, as we lay on the grass beside a wide estuary in Kent she raised herself on one elbow, looked down on me with those smiling eyes and put her forefinger to my lips. I had voiced my sadness at the thought of our parting, wondering when we might, eventually, see each other again. 

            ‘We will write. Often. And then we will see!’ But I think that even then she knew that her future and mine were set upon different courses. And I think that was because she knew me better than I had ever realised, better even than I knew myself. 

            A great flock of geese rose from the mudflats below us, scattered across the sky and then drew together again forming into a ragged skein, and made eastward to the sea. Isolde turned to gaze after them, and I sat up to watch with her and listen to their calling. She began to murmur, to half chant what I took to be verse. I did not recognise it: 

And on a morning, such a morning as there might have been
In the deepness of time, and in a time of innocence,
When a shimmering ocean swept across the bay
I saw the geese …
And I wondered at the unencumbered grace of that formation
As it curved sunward. And when they lost themselves
In the fierce glare, and then gave voice, it was as though
They passed beyond the confines of this world.
For how could the tuneless call of great wild birds
Be so uplifted? For I thought I heard that morning
Not the brash, mournful cry of marsh fowl
But echoes of another firmament. I heard, it seemed to me … 

            Her voice faded. I wondered if what followed was lost to her. But then she turned to me with a look of expectation that said ‘go on – this is ours!’ I must have read it, or something like it before, because the words came to me quite effortlessly and to my complete surprise: 

… I heard, it seemed to me
The sound of trumpets at the Gates of Paradise. 

            ‘Yes!’ That is it, exactly!’ And she leaned over me and kissed me. 

            Two weeks later she left took a flight with her parents to Geneva. And I never saw her again. 

*  *  * 

Isolde has been a regular visitor to me over the past few weeks, since that first time when she stood at the end of the bed as I drifted out of sleep. I believe that the child has become fond of me. This evening, long after she should have gone off duty, she is sitting with a pad in the chair to one side of the bed, sketching the biretta placed on the bedside locker. 

            She is silent, and I say to her, ‘Why do you stay on here? I am sure you have friends you would sooner be with.’ 

            She shakes her head. ‘They can wait. They have time.’ 

            ‘Unlike me?’ 

            She makes no direct response to my question. ‘If you must know, I feel ashamed to think that you – Father Hector Ademokun of the mighty Roman Catholic Church – have not had a single visitor since first I met you.’ She smiles. ‘I am trying to make up for the failings of my fellow men and women!’ 

            Isolde knows something of my past. She knew very soon after our first meeting that, half a century ago I had loved her grandmother more than I have ever loved anyone since. And she is the only other living soul who has known this. But does she know that her grandmother – dead these last five years – has never, for one single day, been absent from my thoughts? Indeed we were – are – soul-mates. Nothing can change that. Not even my faith, or the crumbling remnant of it that still lingers. 

            She told me that the Isolde I had loved never married. Swept up in the movement towards free love and the illusion of freedom, she became pregnant when in America, shortly after graduating. She returned home to a shocked and reproving family and gave birth to a girl who would one day become Isolde’s – this child Isolde’s – mother. She spent much of her life as a recluse, writing – quite successfully – and painting. 

            ‘I really miss her. She was a lovely grandma to me. When she died, she left me a painting, one of her best. I think it is perhaps the most precious thing that I own.’ 

            ‘What is the painting of?’ 

            ‘A flight of geese. They are flying towards the sun across a glittering sea. I think … sometimes I think, that it is a vision of heaven.’ 

*  *  * 

I am very near to the end now. The staff here at the hospice are beyond praise. I have no pain and I am sometimes even comfortable. As I said … blessed morphine! 

            Isolde has come to see me, as she does several times a day now. She pulls the chair close to me. 

            ‘Father – I am … I am going away for a few days. Home. To Switzerland. So I thought I’d come … come to say goodbye’ 

            She takes my hand. I turn to her and I know that a tear is rolling down my cheek. I will never see her again. 

            ‘You have been so very, very good to me. I ask myself, why?’ 

            She does not answer immediately, but instead says: 

            ‘Grandmother … grandma, loved you so, so dearly.’ And then, ‘you know why I …’ and her voice catches and falters. 

            I think I am falling into a dream. Perhaps my last. She leans over me, and that beautiful flaxen hair falls across my face. Her lips brush my forehead. 

            And I know at last that we never lose those we love, because we see them for ever, deep in the eyes of their children. And of their children’s children. 

Outside in the park, where I am told there is a wide lake where waterfowl nest and find sanctuary, I can hear the cry of the geese. And their calling reaches a crescendo, like a mighty fanfare, as they rise together from the water.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Going in Circles

Going in Circles

I realised that something had got Tommy really fired up from the moment he answered the intercom at the front door. It was something in his voice, though his greeting was as terse as ever.

            ‘Mike – good you could make it. Join me in the study. And put the kettle on as you come down.’

            The door release hummed. I let myself in. Minutes later I was standing behind him, a steaming cup in each hand, while he stared into the monitor on his desk. He spun his chair round to face me.

            ‘So. Here you are. I thought you might be interested – well, I know you will be.’

            ‘What have you got there Tommy?’ I nodded towards the screen.

            ‘Proof. Evidence. It’s … it’s mind blowing. But I knew. I’ve known for a long time.’

            ‘Proof of what?’

            ‘That they really are out there …’

            ‘You’re surely not still chasing aliens. I thought you’d left that one behind. I thought you were smarter …’

            He slapped his hand down on the arm of the chair. ‘Just get this, Mike. This is no wild theory. I’ve worked it out from pure observation. The maths is complex. It took me years to get on to the right track. But I’m there now. I’m at a stage where I can make predictions that are borne out by real events. Look at this …’

            He turned back to the computer monitor and tapped at the keyboard. An image filled the screen. Strange, geometric and – yes - beautiful. I knew that I was looking at a photograph of a crop circle.

            ‘But that’s all been debunked! Guys going out into the fields at night with ropes and planks after a few drinks.’

            ‘Mike, do you honestly think a crowd of drunks could have made that?’ There was excitement in his voice.

            ‘OK. So maybe they did this first and then laughed all the way to the pub.’

            ‘Not this one …’

            ‘So how do you know?’

            ‘This circle appeared at the foot of Milk Hill in Wiltshire on the 7th July. Those are the map coordinates at the bottom of the screen.’


            ‘Mike – I predicted it. I knew – to the hour – when it would appear. And where. I’d known for quite some time.’

            ‘You got some eccentric friends who do crazy things in their spare time then?’

            ‘Stop being so bloody obtuse. Who – what – made this are no country yokels. They aren’t even remotely human.’

            ‘Not human. So what are they?’

            Tommy’s brow furrowed. He shook his head. ‘That’s what I don’t know. The only thing I know for certain at the moment is that they make crop circles – or most of them – and other phenomena as well. They’re immensely powerful – and much, much more advanced than we are.’

            ‘So what’s behind them – I mean, why do they make these things?’

            ‘Looks as though they are … communicating. But that’s just a guess. It’s all part of a much larger pattern. Certainly it’s not just confined to the Earth. It’s possible, of course, that they make them as a sort of challenge, a test if you like.’


            ‘Uh-huh. I mean, I hardly think that they aren’t aware that there is intelligent life of this planet. Maybe they were just waiting for someone to suss it all out, and then …’. Tommy hesitated. I wondered if he felt he’d said too much. But I was really playing him along. I mean, the whole idea was so far-fetched. He had to be kidding.

            ‘Are you thinking that they might do something when they realise that we earthlings are on to their game? Taking a bit of a risk there, aren’t you?’

            A smile played across Tommy’s lips. ‘I think you’ll agree that I have little enough to lose. These guys can do anything, even …’

            I shook my head forcefully. ‘Your problems are one thing – but what about the rest of us? I mean, this could be one mighty can of worms …’

            ‘Mike – don’t try to kid me that if you had the chance that I think I have now - if what had happened to me had happened to you – that you would have hesitated for a moment …’

            And he was right. They’d done their best for Tommy after the accident. But it would have taken a miracle to make him what he had been. Were it not for his intellect and his creativity I’m pretty sure he would have given up. Even so, he was tormented by frustration and resentment which could make him very difficult to live with. In the end, even his long suffering wife had found it impossible.

            ‘I’m going for it Mike. And I’m not waiting. If I don’t do it in the next few weeks, then it will have to wait until next year. And that’s too long.’

            ‘So what is it you’re proposing?’

            ‘You’ll know in good time. I’ve worked out where and when the next series of circles will appear. And I am going to be there for one of them. Right in the middle. I’m going to meet them, Mike.’

*  *  *

I couldn’t take him seriously. In fact I worried if his frustration had sent unhinged him. It was just too far fetched. Yet, as the weeks went by I found myself drawn to the web sites that monitored the appearance of the crop circles. Four, in fact, materialised in Wiltshire as the crops grew to maturity. One was clearly a fake, but the others I could not be so sure of, they were so strangely unworldly.

            On another visit to Tommy he’d remarked on these. ‘Oh, yes – I knew they were coming. But they weren’t … weren’t in the right place. Too far off the beaten track. But it isn’t long now …’ He wouldn’t say any more. I guess he thought that I might interfere with whatever it was he was planning. But I don’t think I would have done. Because I never really believed him, until it happened.

*  *  *

Within a few seconds of switching on my mobile phone that morning in late August the familiar jingle announced a text message. It had in fact been sent a couple of hours before I’d woken. It was from Tommy. Just two letters and two five digit series of numbers, and the words “come now”. It took me only a few seconds to recognise it as map reference. As a keen walker, I had a good supply of large scale maps in the house, and it was only a matter of minutes before I was poring over a sheet spread out on the dining table. I pinpointed the spot quickly enough: in the low lying fields south of the Vale of Pewsey in the north of Wiltshire. The heart of crop circle country.

            A couple of attempts to raise Tommy on his mobile proved fruitless. It was switched off. Not even taking voicemails. That was unlike Tommy. For the first time I felt a sense of misgiving. I pulled on a jacket, grabbed some walking boots from the under stairs cupboard and went out to the car.

            It was still quite early and there was no traffic to speak of. A diffuse early-autumn mist lying low over the ripening fields gave an atmosphere of soothing tranquillity. A copper sun hung above the horizon. As it brightened I pulled the visor down over the windscreen. Soon I was closing in on the field that Tommy had identified as the place where the event – whatever lay behind it – was to happen.

            Driving, now more slowly, over the brow of a hill, I was briefly dazzled by the glare of the sun as the tendrils of mist dispersed. I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. And as my sight returned, I saw it in the valley below me.

            I was at once reminded of one of those NASA photos of a spiral galaxy, seen obliquely as so many are. The thing was pristine, exquisitely sculpted. No, I thought to myself, this is far beyond the ability of human beings to have created. Could Tommy have been right? But Tommy, where was he? For a moment I wondered if he would come riding up the lane, calling out ‘I told you so!’ But there wasn’t a sign of him. Then, as the after-image of the sun faded from my vision I saw something at the very hub of the circle. Something dark and crumpled.

            I jumped out of the car and without even slamming the door shut I started running. I came up to a gap in the low hedge from where a trail of flattened barley that I knew had to be Tommy’s track headed out into the field. In spite of the uneven ground I kept up my speed.

            And at last I came to the eye of the circle and found what I had dreaded finding after that first glimpse from the hillside.

            Tommy had adapted his powered wheel chair into what he called an “all terrain” model. He’d been quite proud of it, with its low centre of gravity and bulky tyres. This spot, with its proximity to the road, would not have presented any real challenge. But now it was almost beyond recognition. The tyres themselves had burned away, their remnants still smoking. The metal frame was twisted, scorched and broken.

            As for Tommy himself – nothing. For a while I shouted his name, but silence was the only answer returned to me on that still morning.

            In time the realisation came to me that he really had gone. But where to I don’t expect I’ll ever know. I miss him more than I could have anticipated. But there is a part of me that hopes, even believes, that he did find what he was searching for.

            Tommy – if you are out there – somewhere – I hope that it is all that you wished it would be.

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