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.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

A Boy and his Dog

This is a story written about two years ago for submission to a competition. It didn't win anything. I think I was writing from the perspective of the sort of doctor I like to think I was. Or the sort that I would have liked to have been, anyway. Doctors need to be sensitive to pain in all of its manifestations, spoken or unspoken. And the best doctors know well the awesome healing power that can result from affording the opportunity to listen without interruption and without judgement. And with kindness. This 'gift' - for want of a better word - of sensitive listening is not the prerogative only of doctors. A nurse, social worker, the milk delivery man (are there any left?) or your grannie may be just as skilled. But a doctor possessed of it is a safer doctor - much less likely to prescribe useless or even hazardous medications where they are not needed.

A Boy and his Dog 

1674 Words 

‘Is this seat taken?’ The young man holding a tray with a coffee pot and cup looked down at Veronica. Something suggested that he was talking to someone he knew. Perhaps that was his way. He was casually dressed without being untidy. And he was young, probably much the same age as … as Davy. But it was the way he smiled at her that precluded a refusal. 

            ‘No – it’s not taken. You’re welcome to it. It’s certainly busy in here.’ She looked up at him. The face was unfamiliar. Yet the voice - there was a softness in it that she half recognised. But from where? 

            ‘Not the best time to try to grab a quick cup of coffee.’ He glanced back over the crowded café and the slowly moving queue at the self service counter. Veronica recognised his accent as Irish. She smiled without making any comment, feeling little inclination to engage in small talk with a stranger. 

Perhaps the best way to make the point, without appearing rude, would be to take out the novel she’d just bought. She reached into her bag. As she pulled out the slim paperback, something caught between the pages and fell to the floor at the young man’s feet. Immediately he reached down to retrieve it. He placed it carefully in front of her. Of all things … it had to be that – a small photograph wallet. Was it just by chance, or was the deft movement of his hand causing it to lie open on the table a deliberate one? 

‘Well, she’s a lovely dog. And the lad – your son?’

The photograph of Davy together with their beloved border collie cross was something that Veronica treasured, a reminder of times that were perhaps the happiest in her life. But it was a private thing, not something she would have shared. 

She nodded, and gazed down at the picture. The young man held her in his gaze but said nothing, yet it was his very silence that spoke to her: 

Won’t you tell me about them? 

‘Yes - Davy’s my son. He moved to Tokyo not long after he graduated – he’s a seismologist, working out ways to predict earthquakes. So we don’t see much of him, sadly. And Millie – well, she died not long after Davy left. She was Davy’s dog, you see, although she was very much a family pet.’ To her dismay her voice caught. She realised that she was on the brink of tears, and in the presence of someone – a man – whom she’d met not five minutes ago. 

Was his silence one of tact, or respect? No platitudes, no assurance that he understood – however could he understand her awful sense of loss? Bill had been altogether accepting of what had happened. Kind and gentle though he was, she felt that even he, her husband, had little idea of what she had gone through. 

She began to feel as if she was being drawn into another world, inhabited by just herself and this young man whose name she didn’t even know. A tear dropped on to the back of her hand that rested gently, tenderly on the photograph. And the words began to flow. She spoke of things that she had bottled inside herself for all those months; of love, and loss and abandoned hope. It was not until her voice faltered and there seemed no more to say that he spoke again. 

‘But Davy will come home. You know he will. With all the experience he’ll have gained over there he’d probably get an academic position – a good one too.’ 

Veronica nodded. “I know that. He always promised …’ 

‘And you’ll get another dog.’ 

The shake of her head was emphatic. ‘No. Never. I couldn’t go through that again.’ She remembered her sense of desolation when Millie had died in her arms. How could one grieve so for … for an animal? Bill had become quite seriously worried about her, and had persuaded her to go to old Doctor Morrow, their GP. He had been very kind, told her that grief was grief whatever its cause. He gave her a prescription for some tablets which she never took. But it was the way in which he affirmed her right to grieve over a dog that had started the healing process, painfully slow though it had been. As she had left the consulting room he reminded her that she would not be seeing him again as he was retiring after nearly forty years in practice. He assured her that she and her husband would be in safe hands with Doctor Byrne who would be taking over. ‘He’s been my assistant these last two years’ he had told her, ‘and he has all the qualities of a good family doctor. A good listener, for a start. Something that’s become all too rare among young doctors, in my view’. As he ushered her out to the waiting room he pointed to a man who had his back turned to them, talking to a uniformed nurse. ‘That’s him over there.’ But she had barely noticed him. 

Again she became aware of the young man’s gaze. He seemed to encompass her sorrow, as if to lift it from her. Had she made a fool of herself again? 

‘You’ll have another dog. Not for the pleasure and the fun it will give you, but for the care and love you will give to it. I think you understand me.’ 

Veronica made no reply. She felt suddenly drained. And then the young man stood up, lent forward slightly almost in a bow, and rested his hand gently on the back of hers. ‘Thank you for sharing that with me. And for letting me have that chair!’ He turned and walked away, and in a few moments was lost in the crowd. 

*  *  * 

Christmas that year, for Veronica and her husband, was going to be a double celebration: Davy had telephoned them and told them that he would be joining them at home. And he would be staying for good. The news served to accelerate Veronica’s return to good health. She started to take herself on long walks in the hills again, and though her heart ached for Millie’s companionship she was able to console herself by contemplating Davy’s return. After a visit to her hairdresser for styling and some highlights, Bill greeted her back at the house with enthusiasm. 

            ‘You look ten years younger! I hardly recognise you. Davy will wonder what’s happened to you,’ he beamed. 

            ‘Well, it must be a pretty impressive job for you to have noticed,’ she laughed.  

            She busied herself in the house and the garden as the passing weeks brought Davy’s return ever closer. Bill decorated Davy’s bedroom, and in doing so he managed to aggravate an old back injury shifting a heavy chest of drawers. Veronica was inclined to fuss. 

            ‘We’d better get you to the doctor to see if he can arrange some physiotherapy. We can’t have Davy coming home to an invalid father.’ 

            It was the first time that Veronica had been to the surgery since her last interview with Doctor Morrow. She noticed that there had been subtle changes since he had retired: new pictures on the walls of the waiting room above the racks of health education leaflets, and a play house for the children. They were not kept waiting long. 

            ‘Mr Bill Smithson, please,’ announced Doctor Byrne. 

            For Veronica, the recognition was instant. The young man standing at the open door of his consulting room was he – the very one she had opened her heart to that time in the busy café at the department store. Bill got slowly to his feet. She remained seated. He turned to her. 

            ‘Come on – come in with me!’ 

            ‘No – I’d rather you …’ 

            ‘That’s all right, Mrs Smithson,’ the doctor called across to her. ‘Best if you come in too, I think.’ 

            To Veronica’s relief he gave no sign of having recognised her. She supposed she had changed rather in appearance since their first meeting. And men … well, men often didn’t notice in the way women did. But when he smiled at her … 

            Some carefully directed questions and a brief examination of Bill’s spine with a check on his reflexes soon clarified the problem. Doctor Byrne agreed that a course of physiotherapy together with simple pain relief would in all probability get him back to his usual self quickly enough. He excused himself while he made some notes at the computer keyboard. And then looked up at the couple sitting opposite him.  

            ‘So your son is coming home. You must be looking forward very much to that.’ Veronica found that he was gazing directly at her. 

            ‘Yes. We’re delighted. He seems to have gained quite a reputation in his work. He’s landed himself a really good position.’ 

            The doctor nodded. ‘And he must be so excited to be returning home. I’m sure you’ll be having quite a celebration.’ 

            The enthusiasm in Bill’s response was barely concealed. ‘We certainly are. For starters, a dinner party for all the extended family. And a special surprise too. A present. We haven’t told Davy anything about it … her.’ 

            The doctor looked over quizzically towards Bill. 

            ‘Yes! She’ll be ready to join the family in just a few days. The people from the refuge came and checked us out. But I knew there’d be no problem. We had a border collie cross before, you see, so we know how to care for a dog. Wait a moment …’ he fumbled in his jacket pocket. ‘I’ve a photo’. 

‘Well, that’s a grand thing. A caring, loving home that she sorely needs, no doubt.’ His voice gentle and measured, the doctor passed the photograph back to Bill Smithson, but his smile was for Veronica. And then she remembered the first time she had heard it, all those months ago, as the old doctor had shown her out through his waiting room.


Henry Tegner May 2011

1674 Words

Friday, 29 March 2013

There Is No Darkness

I wrote this about three years ago after I was asked to contribute to a collection of short stories written by doctors. They have since been published  in a volume called 'More than Meets the Eye' in Kindle.Each story starts or takes place in one of the 32 capsules of the London Eye.
My own contribution is, I think, rather maudlin (some might say 'mawkish). Well, it is a love story, and without a happy ending. I'd like to know what you think of it.


He had expected to be impressed, but Ishmael Newton's first sighting of the London Eye from Hungerford Bridge took his breath away. It dominated the South Bank, yet there was a delicacy about it. Out of place in a sense, he thought, but a think of beauty undoubtedly.
He regretted not having brought a camera. His visit to England, arranged hurriedly, had hardly been a vacation but this spur-of-the-moment excursion would provide a distraction. He had need of it.
He joined the queue on the ramp and made his way towards the boarding point. Most of those around him were typical of visitors to London, colourfully and casually dressed. One woman, immediately in front of him, made a stark contrast: she wore a long skirt, and her arms were covered. The floppy hat was unflattering. Not a follower of current fashion, thought Ishmael. Or maybe just eccentric. She stepped in to the barely moving capsule that they would share with perhaps a dozen others, just ahead of him.
As the capsule rose slowly upwards the curved perspex split the sunlight into intense spectra that danced on the backs of his hands as he gripped the chrome rail. He noticed that the shrouded woman was standing quite close to him and that she was looking at him through her dark glasses. He ignored her, lost in his own thoughts. The experiences of the last two weeks had left him feeling numb and in no mood for small talk with strangers.
She began to speak. Despite himself, he found he was listening to her. She was reciting verse, a piece long familiar to him:
“ ... and from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.
“Apt for the occasion, isn’t it, and you so lost in yourself, Ishmael Newton?” She looked at him directly and removed her glasses. “William Wordsworth - A Room with a View. But a literature scholar like yourself would be well aware of that. It used to be a favourite of yours, didn’t it?”
“Michaela!  It is Michaela, isn’t it? How long is it since … ?”
“Fifteen years and four months. I keep track of these things.”
“But you’ve changed” Immediately he regretted his observation. No longer the vibrant, laughing girl he had known, but wasted and gray. His attention was quite distracted from the panorama unfolding around and beneath them as their capsule rose slowly above the South Bank.
“Changed is hardly the word. I am actually something of a wreck. But life has been kinder to you, I think.”
He shook his head. “Sorry – that was tactless of me”. He continued to study her face.

“Not what you would have expected?” she asked. “But then, you wouldn’t know … did you ever think that you would see me again? Did you ever think at all about me, after I wrote that time?”
Ish Newton looked past her. The roof of the Royal Festival Hall was receding below them. “Michaela, would you be surprised to hear that I have thought of you … and us, and our time together, every single day?”
She smiled. “But you are a happily married man with a family. Isn’t that being a bit disloyal? And after I ditched you I thought you’d have hated me.” The smile left her face and she turned away. “I’ve read all your books, kept up with all your successes. Leaving medicine certainly seems to have been the right decision for you.”
The sun passed behind a cloud, and a momentary squall moaned about the capsule as it rose. “I’ve had my doubts on occasions. But yourself? How has your career gone … and, and your marriage? Kids?”
She shook her head. “No career. No marriage and no kids. I’m pretty much on my own, which is as well in the circumstances. I left medicine too. Until a few months ago I was a librarian.”
“I’m sorry. So things didn’t work out?”
She stared at him. “Ish, I never did get married”. She dropped her eyes “That letter – it was a lie. A complete lie. I’m sorry, but it seemed the only thing I could do at the time. You’d every reason to hate me”.
Ish shook his head. A look of anguish crossed his face. “But why Michaela? I could just about accept that you’d fallen for another bloke. But we had an understanding – more than an understanding. Why did you need to break it off? I was crazy about you. I hadn’t met Susannah then”.
The woman rested her hand on his forearm, and drew closer to him. “When you left, I consoled myself with the thought that you had only gone for a year, that you would get that experience you needed, get the travel bug out of your system. I was getting myself established then in medical genetics. Don’t you remember? I thought that when you came back we could really get together and make a future for ourselves”.
“I thought that too. You know I did”
Sunlight streamed for a few seconds between the clouds, illuminating her face. Ish, oblivious to everything outside, went on, “So, what was it about then? I guess something pretty dreadful must have happened to make you do what you did”.
She paused. “Yes. It was pretty dreadful. Within weeks of your leaving I discovered that I had … I had cancer”. Her voice dropped to little more than a whisper.
“Cancer?” He fell silent for a moment. “My God ... But why didn’t you tell me?”
“Ish, breast cancer in one’s mid twenties is bad enough, and unusual as you know. But I found that I have the BRCA 1 gene. You know what that is, don’t you?” He nodded. “The risk of keeping my breasts was too great.”
“You had surgery?”
“Yes. My breasts. Both of them. Would you want to have married me after that?”
He did not answer her question. “But couldn’t you have told me? I could have done something  …”
Could you? Just think, Ish … look at it from my point of view. I knew you well enough. God knows, you were – are, I guess – a decent man. I think you would have married me, even then. But there would have been no children. Not after what they had to do to me. I am talking about me now Ish – I could not have done that to you. I nearly died, you know – I came damned near to killing myself.”
“Hold on … hold on a moment. This is really too much. I should never have gone along with it at the time, your letter I mean. I should have telephoned you, come back even. You could have refused to marry me, but was there really any need to take yourself out of my life?”
“I thought it was for the best. I have wondered since– when I saw your first book among the best sellers and realised that you settled in Australia and quit medicine. That was a good few years later, of course. Before that I did think that you’d have made some attempt to contact me when you returned to England. But of course, you never did return.” She paused and searched his face with her eyes. “I’m sorry, really sorry to have dropped this on you, Ish. Perhaps when I saw you just before we got on board this thing I should have turned round, pretended to funk it. Or hidden myself in the crowd in the next capsule. But you see, something just wouldn’t let me. It was an opportunity that I know I will never have again.”
The capsule was reaching its zenith.  Her final remark caught Ish’s attention. “Are you telling me something, Michaela?”
She nodded. “It’s come back … the cancer.” She fell silent again. On impulse he put his arms around her and drew her to him. He half expected her to resist, but she did not.
“Oh, my poor girl. But, but you’re having treatment?”
She shook her head. “I’ve had it all. There’s really no point. I’ve made my decision, and there’s no changing it. In fact I paid my last visit to the hospital this morning. They couldn’t disagree with me. And then I came here. My first ‘flight’ as they say. But it was my soul that needed lifting. And there was a premonition … was our meeting pre-destined, I wonder?”
“Michaela, look … we must get together. I’m free for the rest of today. Let’s go somewhere and talk”
Again she shook her head. “No, Ish. When we walk out of this thing, we part - for good. I’ve things I need to do. You have to go and live your own life, forget about me.”
Forget you? Don’t talk bloody nonsense!”
Almost imperceptibly, the capsule began its descent. As if deliberately changing the subject, Michaela said “Ish – why did you come back? What brought you back now? Are you here long?”
He seemed on the point of dismissing the questions, then hesitated. “My mother died three weeks ago. I’ve been here for the funeral, and to sort out her affairs.”
“Oh … I am so sorry to hear that. I have such good memories of her. She was very kind to me”.
He nodded. “She did ask about you, after I left. I think she was disappointed that it didn’t work out for us. She never took to Susannah the way she did to you”.
“Did you tell her how it ended between us?”
“About your letter? No. I think I was rather evasive. Mother blamed me for us splitting up, I think”.
“Poor Ish! So there you were, completely thrown by what I’d done, and having to take the rap from your mother as well” She looked over his shoulder into the distance. “So it’s not been much of a fun visit for you, has it?”
“But seeing you has … but, God, why did it have to be like this? Come on, Michaela. Can’t we arrange to meet again before I go back?”
This time she ignored his question. “And have you done anything else while you’ve been here? Friends, family to catch up with?” She looked into his face again, as if searching.
“No” he replied. “There’s really no-one who means very much to me here now. Only yourself. But I did make one journey away from London”
“I expect it sounds silly to you. I went to the place where we … where we buried Joe”.
Joe? But that’s more than two hundred miles away!”
His mind drifted back. He wondered if he had ever experienced since the joy that they shared then, and being in love and in love with life itself. And the little dog that raced ahead of them over the fields, and leapt the dry stone walls, who had been a part of it all. The Yorkshire dales in that last summer had been pretty close to paradise. The terrier had been Michaela’s. She had been heartbroken when he was killed. Together they had found a quiet spot on the border of some woodland where they had buried him. Not many days after that, Ish had broken the news to her of his decision to take up the post in Melbourne. Grief could do strange things, he mused. Could it have been the trigger for what followed?
“How did it look? It’s years since I last went up there.”
He nodded. “Fine. Overgrown a bit. But I guess he’s still there. In fact, I know he is.”
They were descending steeply now. Ish looked over to Westminster Bridge. An ambulance, blue light flashing, weaved between the traffic. His thoughts were miles away.
“I saw the stone. The stone you placed there”.
She followed his gaze, a distant look in her eyes. “I’m glad that that much is going to be left behind. I had it made and I set it there after I wrote to you, when I realised at last that you wouldn’t reply.”
“Had you hoped that I would?”
She nodded almost imperceptibly. “I prayed it. But you never did”.
“What fools we were …”
“What fools”.
“I think we … we lacked the courage. Maybe it was for the best, but I wonder”.
She remained silent, lost in thought. “I was feeling pretty wretched when I drove up there” he went on. “I was so moved by what you had written. And when I saw that you’d had both our initials engraved on it … I think I suspected then that things were not quite as you had told me.”
She nodded. “I’m glad you saw that”. She was silent for a few seconds. “Ish …”
“In just a few minutes you and I are going to say goodbye. Please don’t make it hard for me.”
He held her frail body to him. “I’ll do my best. But I may not make the same mistake that I did last time. And I won’t ever forget you.”
“Nor I you …”
As they were ushered out of the capsule at last, Ish steadied Michaela as she stepped hesitatingly across the threshold. Arm in arm they walked slowly down to the pavement.
“OK, Ish. Now you are going to go one way, and I the other”. Her voice had become firm.
He took her in his arms and kissed her. “Ish … no more!” She relaxed and looked at him. Gently he released his grip. His eyes moistened.
“Ish – one thing …”
“Do you remember the words on Joe’s stone?”
“Yes, of course”.
“Will you say them to me?”
“But you wrote them!”
Say them!”
They stood, unnoticed, away from the main throng of pedestrians. The noise of the traffic and trains seemed distant. He put his arms on her shoulders and gazed down into her eyes. She looked pleadingly back at him. And he spoke, slowly, in a voice that she knew to be well used to reciting verse in lecture halls and theatre auditoria, yet quietly now, to her alone:
“There is no darkness in the whole world
that can put out the light
of one small candle”.
The woman’s features relaxed and the faintest smile passed across her face. “How strange that the … the epitaph on a grave of a dog should be such a precious thing to me”
The man searched for a response. She raised her right hand and put her index finger to his lips, and shook her head. She studied his face for a moment.
She spoke his name “Ishmael!”
Then she turned and walked away, became caught up in the crowds, and in less than a minute she was lost to his view.