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.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Going in Circles

This story was inspired by my coming across a crop circle late one August at the foot of Milk Hill in Wiltshire. As for the true origin of these phenomena, I keep an open mind.

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, Tommy.’
*  *  *
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.

1678 Words


Aurora, as you know, was the Roman goddess of Dawn. It was also the name of the princess in the story of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’.
A man was waiting for me outside the stage door of the auditorium. Slight build, with a short beard, spectacles and receding hair.
            ‘Excuse me – I wonder if I might have a quick word, Miss Appleby?’ He was nervous and I thought, probably quite harmless.
            I looked at my watch, then glanced back at him. Probably an admirer wanting to compliment me on the performance. If he was a nutter I could deal with him. But not out here in the dank evening in the late fall in New York. There was something earnest in his voice that provoked a feeling of, well, not quite pity, but a kind of sympathy.
            ‘That’s fine. But shall we go back into the foyer? They won’t be closing the doors for a while.’
            Over a coffee he introduced himself as Max Leveson. He did indeed want to express his appreciation for the two Prokoviev sonatas I’d played that evening. But I knew there was something more pressing on his mind. He was not long in revealing it.
            ‘Miss Appleby – I should tell you that I work at the Jet Propulsion Unit at Pasadena.’ He paused as if in expectation of a response.
I had a feeling about where this was leading to, but thought it best not to be drawn. I merely nodded and waited for him to continue.
‘Your daughter, Merope. She’s one of my postgraduates. Doing research for her Doctorate.’
I nodded. ‘Yes. I believe she’s doing quite well at the Institute. Is there a problem?’
‘No. No problem at all. And she’s doing … she’s doing more than “quite well”. In fact her work is outstanding. One wonders if she hasn’t inherited something quite remarkable from your father, her grandfather. We are all familiar with his work at Cambridge, you know. We were wondering if … if she keeps in contact with him.’
‘Actually, no. In fact she’s not seen him since she was a very small child. For some reason he seemed to have a problem with her having “followed in his footsteps” so to speak. This was the reason we – she – chose to move on to Caltech when she graduated from Imperial. My husband – her father – seemed to think that he might even try to block her progress. I trusted his judgement on that, as I did on most things.’
            He nodded as if not entirely surprised. ‘A pity. Do you know, the work she is doing on life support systems is an exact parallel – or rather, I should say, a continuation of his own. I think it won’t be long before she cracks the problem that always bedevilled him, and kept the Nobel prize just out of his reach.’
            ‘You mean – what she calls the “reversal”?’
            ‘Yes. That is exactly what I mean.’
*  *  *
It was two years later that I met Professor Leveson again. Not in America, but at my father’s home in Cambridgeshire. He had flown together with three colleagues to pay their respects. My father had died quite suddenly two weeks earlier. I was hosting a reception after his funeral at the house where the old scientist had lived for the greater part of his career.
            Once again Leveson took the opportunity to have a few words with me on his own. I guess that I was rather dismissive of the ritual – but I suppose necessary – expression of condolences. I had few good memories of my father. In fact he had had little enough to do with me for most of my life. After the death of my mother when I was less than a year old I’d been adopted by a cousin of his and her husband who themselves had been childless. It was they who had inspired me and propelled me into my career as a pianist.
            He seemed unfazed, even unsurprised by my lukewarm response. Again he spoke about my daughter: ‘I’d like to congratulate you on your daughter’s achievement. You know that her thesis has been published in ‘Nature’. It’s caused ripples right across the world.’
            ‘She’s really rather modest about it,’ I replied. ‘When she manages to get to London she’s more interested in getting out and about – “getting back a life” as she calls it.’
            He nodded. ‘That’s good. A diet of pure academia isn’t a healthy one. But she must have had some feelings for Professor McKinnon. I know it wasn’t easy for her to re-arrange her schedule to be here at this time.’
            I hesitated. But knowing that the circumstances would be common knowledge soon enough, I went on: ‘the fact is – completely to our surprise, that my father left his entire estate to Merrie. She is the executor of his will and the sole beneficiary.’
            ‘You mean to say that you … you’ve been left nothing?’ He was clearly astonished.
            ‘That’s how it is. But don’t trouble yourself over it. It means little enough to me. Anyway, it seems only fair that she should have some acknowledgement from her grandfather after all this time.’
            ‘And can I ask – how did she react?’
            ‘She was surprisingly unmoved. Although I know that she is anxious to access his research files. The ones he appears to have kept in his private laboratory here at the house. That may not be entirely straightforward though.’
            ‘How so?’
            ‘I understand that he worked in the old vaults under the house. Though I’ve not seen them – I’ve never lived here as an adult – I am told that they are as secure as Fort Knox. Whatever he was doing there, he wasn’t going to share it. Merrie is intrigued, as you can imagine. No doubt she’ll make it her business to get in there. But I can hardly imagine that she’ll learn anything new.’
            ‘Well, I’m sure you’ll keep an eye on her. Of course, as her mother I know you will.’
            ‘Are you trying to tell me something, Professor?’
            Now it was his turn to hesitate. ‘Your daughter, Miss Appleby, has an exceptional future ahead of her. Within the department, we are fairly confident that she may soon become the youngest woman ever to be awarded a Nobel prize. But more than that …’
            ‘As you know, she has been a leader in the development of … the process of suspended animation. Her grandfather, of course, laid the foundations of the science some years ago. She is on the verge of perfecting it. If you like, she took over where he left off. For this reason she has been in training for a … a special mission …’
            I suddenly felt cold. ‘What mission?’
            He looked straight in to my eyes.
            ‘In about two years, Miss Appleby, your daughter, will join the crew of a space vehicle. To be more specific – the first manned expedition to the planet Mars.’
*  *  *
Merope sat opposite me, gazing into the fire. We had both been kept busy in the ten days since my father’s funeral. I’d tried to draw her out on her role in the Mars expedition – the prospect of which frankly terrified me. She was reticent, I suppose because the whole venture was wrapped in security protocols. What she did reveal, in a light-hearted way, was that she would be away for five years. But on her return she would have aged only a year. ‘You see, mother’ she had said, ‘in suspended animation the aging process virtually stops’. If she had hoped that this would make me feel better, she was mistaken.
The various guests and well-wishers had long departed. Now only the two of us remained.
            ‘Something on your mind?’ I asked her.
            ‘Mmmm … I was thinking. What a lovely name …’
            ‘What name?’
            ‘”Aurora”. My grandmother’s name. How sad that you have no memories of her at all. Don’t you even have a photo?’
            ‘No – no photos. No letters. Really, nothing at all.’
            ‘She was drowned, wasn’t she? When you were still a baby?’
            ‘That’s how it seems to have been. They were swimming on a deserted beach on the east coast. It was quite notorious for undertow in certain tide and weather conditions. Her body was never found. I learned later on that my father came under suspicion. But only briefly. They never found any evidence of foul play.’
            ‘But could he have had any reason …?’
            ‘The only thing that ever occurred to me was that he looked on her as an impediment to his career. He was a driven and jealous man. She was pregnant with me before they married. And things were very different then. But I’ve no business speculating. There was never a shred of evidence …’
            She became thoughtful again. ‘I often wondered why you and Daddy were so anxious to get me away when I took the direction I did.’
            She did not appear to expect a response. And I did not give one. By way of changing the subject I said: ‘I agree. It is a lovely name. And my father’s cousin, my adoptive mother, did tell me once that she was a beautiful young woman. When she last saw you – you’d have been about sixteen or so – not long before she died, she remarked upon how much like your grandmother you were.’
            Merrie made no further comment. She was silent for a few minutes, and continued to gaze into the fire. I could see that she was preoccupied with something. I asked her: ‘So – is everything all right?’
            She looked up at me. ‘Why, yes … well, it’s just that I’ve … I’ve broken the codes – the sequences on the locks to grandfather’s laboratory. There was nothing particularly difficult about it, in fact. I’m fairly certain that it is what he intended – that I should be the one to have access to whatever it was that he was doing there. I am going to go in tomorrow.’
            ‘Well, take care, won’t you.’
            She shrugged her shoulders. ‘I’m not expecting any surprises.’
            Somehow, I felt, her voice lacked conviction.
*  *  *
As it happened, I had to spend the next two days in London with my agent. I arrived back at my father’s house in the late evening. Merrie was in her room and did not appear for almost an hour. When she did, I could see that she was agitated.
            I asked at once, ‘have you been … down there?’
            She nodded briskly. ‘Yes. And I … I was not entirely surprised at what was there.’
            ‘And what was there?’
            ‘Well, not much. Other than three chests.’
            ‘Uh-huh. I think they are, well, I know they are … hibernation chambers. But the design is an old one – the sort that he and his team were building right at the start of the programme.’
            ‘You say that you know that that is what they are. What makes you so certain?’
            She looked directly at me. ‘Two of them may be empty. Or at any rate, if they contain anything then it isn’t anything alive. But the third …’
            ‘The monitors in the casing indicate some activity … all the parameters suggest that there is an … an organism inside the chamber that is in suspended animation …’
            ‘You mean – a living creature?’
            ‘That’s what it seems. And if it is the case, then it seems very probable that, whatever it is, it has been that way for upwards of fifty years.’
            ‘Is that very remarkable?’
            ‘Barely credible would be more like it. That is more than ten times longer than any other living thing has been kept in that state.’
            ‘But why so long?’
            ‘Probably because Grandfather never discovered the reversal technique.’
            ‘But you discovered it at Caltech a good two years ago. You could have told him …’
            ‘Mother, he never asked me. He never made any contact with me or anyone else at the institute. But I am very sure that he knew we had cracked it. He must have had a reason for keeping quiet …’
            ‘What are you going to do now, Merrie?’
            She looked at her watch. ‘It’ll be mid-morning in California now. I’m going to call Max. I’m going to ask him to get a flight over here just as soon as he can, and bring some … equipment. Together we’ll initiate a reversal. And I’d sooner do it with him alongside me than on my own.’
*  *  *
Max needed no second bidding. He was clearly excited when he joined us just two days later. He trundled a large aluminium case on wheels into the room and made some light comment about just being within the weight allowance. ‘And don’t worry, Alison,’ he smiled at me, ‘I’ve not broken any laws so far as the contents are concerned!’
            The two of them made their way down to the laboratory the following morning. They remained there for the whole of the day. That evening Max came up alone. He took me aside.
            ‘Alison … I wonder if … the fact is that Merope is tired … very tired. She doesn’t want to join us this evening. In fact I think even now she’s gone upstairs.’
            Overhead I could hear footsteps. ‘I must go to see …’
            Max put a restraining hand on my shoulder. ‘No Alison. Best not. This has all been a little overwhelming for her. It’s not turned out quite as we … she had expected. Best leave her be …’
            ‘But what … what’s happened?’
            ‘Nothing terrible. Just unexpected, is all. She just hasn’t taken it all on board. Please – let’s leave it until the morning. I promise that we’ll be finished by this time tomorrow.’
            In spite of an almost overwhelming anxiety I did not demur. Had I done so I think that Max might well have physically restrained me.
*  *  *
I had hoped to catch Merrie the following morning before she and Max resumed their work. But she must have got up in the small hours. By the time I came down to the kitchen they had already locked themselves away in the laboratory. I found myself losing count of the time. It seemed that a whole day had passed, and yet when I looked at the clock it was still only mid-morning. I forced myself to walk for an hour in the extensive grounds surrounding the house. When I returned, it was only to an eerie silence.
            It was about mid-afternoon when I heard a stirring in the passageway outside the living room where I had tried unsuccessfully to distract myself with a book. There was a knock on the door. It was Max. His face was strained.
            ‘Well, Alison … we … we’ve finished. It’s …’
            ‘Is everything OK? I mean, has it … has the reversal worked?’
            ‘Oh yes. We had to take it very slowly. It’s been so long, you see. But it has been a complete success. Would you like to come and see?’
            ‘Yes … yes, but what is it you found …?’
            ‘Just … come. But be prepared for a surprise … it may be quite a shock for you.’
            I found myself gripping his hand as we approached to door to the stairway that led down to the laboratory.
            The room itself was spacious and well lit. A fine mist partly obscured the objects in front of us. And the two people who stood up to receive us.
            And I could not at first believe what I saw. There was Merope – and Merope … another woman who at first seemed to be the identical twin of my daughter. Only she was slighter in build. And her skin was like alabaster.
            My daughter held the other’s hand and, tentatively, they stepped toward me.
            Merrie smiled at me. ‘Have you guessed who this is, mother?’
            I looked at the woman. ‘Who … who …?’
            And now the other woman smiled at me. And then she spoke, her voice barely above a whisper.
            ‘They have told me that you are my daughter. I … I am Aurora!’

2710 words                                                                                                         Henry Tegner
                                                                                                                           February 2013