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.

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