Alternative Reality

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In a luxurious and secluded venue, a group of rich and powerful people sit, sipping brandy and discussing the great problems of the world, climate change and how to respond to it without losing their position of privilege. One says, ‘Maybe we have to face it – fossil fuels, consumerism and endless growth are failing – the crazy, green socialists are right – we can’t go on using resources and destroying the planet just to keep siphoning wealth from the poor. Things have got to change.’

But another smiles and says, ‘Don’t forget the other solution.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Downsizing.’

‘Huh?’

‘Fewer people means less destruction of ecosystems and fewer poor people means less inequality. Just what those crazy greens want. If we didn’t have to support so many poor people the world would be much better off.’

‘But what about the gruntwork they do? I don’t want to slave in a care home or pick fruit!’

‘Most of that can be automated – and much of it is unnecessary anyway. We’re only farming them for the interest on the loans that keep them locked in to the system.’

‘Ok. How do you propose to downsize?’

‘Simple. Make sure universal healthcare fails and have a few wars … more brandy anyone?’

Truth and Consequences (a tragedy)

Prologue

A man on a bony bay gelding rides up the forest track, among dark spruce and flaming maple. Above him, the high faint calls of climbing buzzards speak of space and solitude. At a certain spot he slows and stops, as if by habit. He dismounts and unsaddles the horse. ‘You ready for this?’ He gives the horse a slap on its rump, and another, to send it back down the trail. Then, alone in the forest, he gazes around him, breathing in a great lungful of the resiny air. Delicately, he takes off from round his neck a small suede bag. Worn dark and soft with years of wear, it opens easily, tips out into his hand his shining good-luck piece. ‘I hope you’re waiting for me, Carlo,’ he says to the empty air. ‘I didn’t mean to take so long.’

***

The man in the wheelchair looked out across the still water of the lake. ‘Beautiful isn’t it?’ Walker ventured, but got no reply. The man seemed almost unaware of Walker standing beside him, impervious to this attempt at conversation. He had thick wiry dark hair, beginning to grey – about 40? He looked cold and profoundly tired.

Later, back in the clinic, Walker asked the room, ‘What’s with that guy in the wheelchair? I’ve never seen him do anything but sit.’

‘You mean our amputee? He’s a cop – or was. Name’s Giannini. He’s been here 9 months now. Some kind of PTSD. Plus he’s been on a lot of pain meds after the amputation.’

‘Visitors?’

‘There were any number of girls to start with but most of them gave up pretty soon. It was a shame about that one, what was her name, Jenny? She stuck it out the longest. I thought she might have been able to do him some good.’

‘Or you might have picked her up on the rebound, eh, Drake?’ Nurse McNeil said drily.

***

Jenny tried so hard to help him, to get him back. She sat with him, talked to him, took him out into the sun. But his invisible fortifications only seemed to get stronger, until even holding his hand felt like a kind of violation. When in the end, in desperation, she tried to reach him with her lips on his, he had turned away so absolutely, it felt like a slap in the face.

‘If you had seen him, Leanne,’ she said to her friend, ‘he looked … so …’

‘So what?’

‘I don’t know … it was like I disgusted him. I think he hates me and I don’t know why.’

***

Drake laughed off McNeil’s gibe and went on: ‘A couple of guys, cops, used to come by for a while, but that stopped after he threw a fit, knocked the skinny one down … It was quite a surprise; he’d never been aggressive before. Never been anything really, except that one time.’

‘What’s the story then?’

‘I dunno, not my patient – you’ll have to look at the files.’

Case file no. 790503-12 Date: 12 October 1975

Det. Alessandro Giannini – age 35, wt 170 – RTA on Rte 123 (PD incident no. 13546-10) – on arrival at ER: hypothermia/lower rt limb trauma/compound fractures/necrosis – reconstructive surgery excluded. Recommendation: amputation/prosthesis.

Psych. Consult – PTSD?

Patient unresponsive. Though able to understand and respond appropriately in essential practical matters.

‘Well that doesn’t tell us much.’ The case conference was not getting very far. Dr Walker was the newcomer who had requested an update on Giannini, among other patients whose care he was taking over, and it seemed that the clinic staff had almost given up on this one. ‘Does anybody know what the circumstances of the RTA were? How come he came in with hypothermia?’

‘I don’t think anyone knows what really happened – he won’t talk, but you could look at the PD incident report.’

‘Ok – and I think I’ll go and see if I can find someone who knew this guy before.’

At police HQ, Walker asked if he could see the case file.

PD incident no. 13546-10

Rescue helicopter called out to vicinity of Rte 123 in state park after hikers reported burnt out vehicle on hillside below forest road. Officers Giannini and Svensson found 20 yds from vehicle. Svensson deceased at scene – multiple internal injuries. ToD estimated to be 24hrs prior to discovery. Giannini evacuated to City Hospital.

Evidence at scene suggests driver lost control and vehicle left road on sharp bend. Fire cannot have resulted directly from impact as jerry can had been removed from trunk. Tracks and blood at scene suggest some activity prior to fire.

Giannini’s ex-colleagues were not too eager to talk about him and his dead partner, but Walker was told that the accident was just that. There were no suspicious circumstances; they hadn’t been on duty when it happened. In fact they were on a camping trip in the state park and it looked like the car had gone off the road because of a deer. There were still deer tracks and skid marks visible in spite of the rain, according to the park ranger who had attended the scene and given evidence at Svensson’s inquest.

‘Giannini and Svensson were friends as well as colleagues then?’

‘Yes, you could say that. They’d been partners for years – if they hadn’t got on that wouldn’t have worked. They drank together, chased the same girls…, watched out for each other – you know … partners can end up like brothers.’ The young cop shrugged.

‘This report is pretty minimal. Are there any photos?’

‘Yes but …’

‘But what?’

‘You are a doctor right? Confidentiality applies?’

Walker frowned. ‘Of course.’

‘Here you are then.’

There were several photos of the burnt-out car, and the trail of destruction through the brush that it had created in its descent of the hillside.

‘Looks like they were lucky to get out alive,’ murmured Walker, to himself.

‘Only one of them did, in the end,’ said the cop.

The next photo stopped Walker’s casual flipping through the pile. It showed Giannini and another man lying close together in what looked like a peaceful embrace. They both appeared to be sleeping. There were several other images showing details of the scene: Giannini’s leg, broken and bloody with an improvised tourniquet, resting gently across his partner’s legs; their joined hands on Svensson’s chest, partly hiding a small leather pouch which hung on a cord round his neck.

Walker raised his eyebrows and looked a question at the officer. ‘Were they…?’

‘No, I’m sure… look – there were rumours, you know, but I never believed it. They were real ladies’ men, especially Alex – Giannini that is – “the Italian stallion”,’ he grinned. ‘Like I said they were just partners… But nobody would want these pictures to get out …’ He looked up at Walker, somber again. ‘They were good guys, good at their jobs, you know? They are missed…’

‘You liked them.’ The cop nodded, remembering.

***

It had been his first day in the precinct – newly graduated and a bit daunted by the hectic atmosphere, typewriters clattering under the indelicate fingers of hefty policemen, voices, harsh or murmuring, of cops and the people ‘helping them with their inquiries’. Svensson had noticed him first, hovering by the squadroom door, and with the briefest of glances he had alerted Giannini, whose genial smile had welcomed in the new boy. They had taken time to show him the ropes, and as time passed, without meaning to, they had also shown him the value of friendship and loyalty in dangerous places.

 

Only later had he fully recognised how much he had learned from them, about the job, about the world they lived in and how to survive in it honourably.

 

***

‘I owe them,’ he said quietly.

Another question occurred to Walker.

‘Why were these photos taken? Surely they should have been treating Giannini?’

‘At first we thought both of them were …  It was standard procedure.’

‘You were there?’

‘Ah… yes.’

‘Why did you think they were both dead?’

‘They were both so still and cold. We couldn’t find a pulse at first. Alex was grey, and Karl looked like a ghost.’ His mouth twisted at the memory.

‘The hypothermia makes sense then.’ Looking more closely at the photos, Walker could see that both men’s clothes were sodden – though the contents of an overnight bag were scattered nearby.

‘It looked like maybe Alex had used some clothes as a kinda fuse to light the gas tank – there was an empty gas can and a burnt trail leading towards the car. We guessed he’d been trying to send up a signal. Didn’t work – the weather was shit all weekend and no one was out and about in the woods till the Monday.’

Walker looked at the photos again and felt suddenly cold.

‘So there they were, trying to keep warm, waiting to die in the middle of nowhere – I wonder if Giannini even realised Svensson had died?’ Walker was just thinking aloud again but he got an answer.

‘I think he must have.’

‘Why? He looks so peaceful here – surely he couldn’t have known he was lying beside a corpse, his friend’s …’ Walker’s vivid imagination made him leave the word unspoken.

‘When he woke up in the hospital, I was there – I was assigned to take a statement as soon as possible.’

‘And? What did he say?’

‘Nothing. That’s the thing – he didn’t ask where Karl – Svensson – was or anything. That would have been his first question if he didn’t already know … ’

‘But then … you’re saying he knew Svensson was … gone, but he stayed there beside him. Didn’t try to get himself out of there – just lay there waiting …?’

‘Like you said before, waiting to die.’

Walker looked at the two relaxed faces in the photo. Svensson’s cheek was hidden by Giannini’s dark hair and his left hand held Giannini’s right on his chest, his right arm curved against Giannini’s broad back. In spite of the traces of tears and blood on Giannini’s sooty face he looked like a different man to the silent, closed patient Walker had tried to speak to … content almost.

Walker returned to the clinic thinking hard. He had borrowed the photos; he hoped they might give him a way into Giannini’s defensive shell. The next day he conferred with his colleagues as they glanced at the photos.

‘They look like lovers, not cops.’ Drake always said the obvious.

‘That’s why the police didn’t want to show these to me. I had to plead doctor-patient confidentiality.’

‘I don’t believe that for a minute,’ Nurse McNeil spoke over him. The senior psychiatric nurse was scornful. ‘He’s the straightest guy in this place.’

‘How can you tell? He never speaks.’

‘Well you just watch his eyes when a pretty thing like Nurse James comes in. He may be shut down but his autopilot’ll follow her round the room, and she’ll know it. As over-sexed and male as they come, I’d say.’ She snorted coarsely. ‘The sexy face of male dominance, that’s what he is.’ Walker was somewhat taken aback by this frank judgement; he had yet to get to know Nurse McNeil and had been misled by her prim, spinsterish looks.

‘Well, uhh. … The cop I spoke to said they were good friends, partners for years, “chased the same girls” was his phrase. So … whatever the relationship you can see that Giannini would be hit hard by this experience. Imagine it … 24 hours…’ A med school lecture on rigor mortis suddenly came to mind as Walker looked again at the photos, and he tried to repress a shudder. ‘We must get him to process it somehow. He’s clearly in deep denial.’

‘Good luck with that,’ said Drake, raising a dubious eyebrow.

Giannini was sitting, impassive as ever, gazing through the window of the consulting room, though it only looked out on to a parking lot. Walker pulled up a chair beside him.

‘Alessandro, Alex, I’ve got something to show you.’ He opened the folder containing the ‘crime scene’ photos and put it in Giannini’s lap. Giannini didn’t move or look down.

‘Ok, I’m going to hold them up where you can see them.’ Walker displayed the photos in Giannini’s line of sight, waiting until a slight movement suggested Giannini had focused on them before he started slowly to work through the pile, starting with the images of the car and its surroundings. But before he got to the photos of the two men he put the pile down, saying, ‘Shall I go on?’

For the first time Giannini looked him in the eye, ‘No.’ It was barely a sound. Giannini turned his chair away and began to wheel himself to the door. ‘Let me out,’ in a fierce whisper.

Walker watched him going down the corridor. Drake came up behind him. ‘Progress?’

‘I really don’t know… do four words count?’

The next morning when Walker came in to work he was immediately confronted by one of the night staff. ‘What did you do to stir up Giannini? He’s never any trouble normally – takes his meds like a good boy – but last night he refused. He won’t have slept much without them I reckon, and he woke up yelling.’

‘Yelling what?’

‘I don’t know, nothing that made any sense – “sorry”, maybe?’

In the consulting room again, Giannini was clearly in a different state – no longer gazing blankly out of the window. He looked haggard with lack of sleep and his eyes were red.

As soon as Walker entered the room, Giannini spoke. ‘Show me those photos.’

‘Ok – here you are.’ Giannini took the pile of prints from him hesitantly, and worked his way through them again to the point where they had stopped the day before.

‘Do you want to go on?’

‘No…yes…’

‘It’s ok – take your time…’

Giannini closed his eyes tightly, breathed deeply, and then looked at the next photo. He stared at it for several minutes, tension vivid in his jaw, until, with a hoarse groan, he scattered the pile across the room. His head dropped and his whole body seemed to fold in on itself. The heels of his hands pressed his eyes closed, fingers hooked into his thick hair.

Walker spoke very quietly. ‘It’s ok to grieve you know. When you’ve lost so much…’

‘For fuck’s sake! I’m not a child!’ The anger and pain in Giannini’s voice and face when he looked up were shocking. ‘I know what I’ve lost! What he took …’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh shut up! Why did you bring those …?’ Giannini suddenly hauled himself out of his chair, reaching across the desk and grabbing Walker by the lapels. ‘Listen, you bastard. What do you know about anything? Don’t try and tell me what I’ve lost. You don’t … ah Christ, let me get out of here!’ He pushed Walker away and slumped back into the chair, his fists clenched on its arms, waiting for the door to open.

Outside the room again, Drake asked the same question. ‘Progress?’

‘This time, I think so … but he’s a bit…uh… forceful when he lets go,’ Walker replied ruefully, easing his neck and smoothing his shirt collar into place. ‘I’m glad I’m not some crook he’s after.’

At their next meeting, Giannini was gruffly apologetic. ‘Don’t worry about that. It’s better than silence.’ Walker smiled. Giannini did not smile back.

‘So you’re here. Do you want to talk about what happened that night?’

‘I dunno that I can…’

‘Ok – is there anything you would like to talk about?’

Giannini raised his eyes to the ceiling and sighed. Though he still looked worn and tired, there was more life in the dark eyes when he looked back at Walker. The months-long freeze was beginning to thaw, it seemed.

‘What do you suggest? Baseball?’ with a twisted smile. ‘I don’t think so.’ And as his defended features softened, Walker got a hint of the man he had been and found himself wondering what it would be like to be his friend. ‘There it is,’ he thought, ‘what McNeil was talking about – charisma, animal magnetism, whatever you call it … ’

‘Tell me about Svensson, “Karl” was it? You were partners a long time…’

‘Yes … 8, no, 9 years …’

‘So you worked well together?’

‘I suppose…’

***

 

The two newly promoted detectives shook hands a little warily. They certainly weren’t a matching set. Giannini was dark with curly hair, a Boston drawl, and a Mediterranean look to match his name. Svensson was taller, blond and smooth, a typical mid-westerner, dressed in a sports coat and slacks. Giannini thought he looked like a lawyer at the weekend. Svensson thought Giannini looked like a street punk. Capt. Stone saw the mutual reserve and sighed internally. ‘Ok you two. Why don’t you get your teeth into this. Let’s see what you’re made of,’ handing them a couple of manila files. ‘There’ve been several robberies in Chinatown, similar MO…. well, off you go.’ He watched them as they left the office, shaking his head. ‘That doesn’t look so promising…’ he thought.

 

Giannini looked across the desk at this stranger who seemed to be inspecting him with some disdain. ‘So, Svensson. Where do you want to start with this? A trip down to Chinatown?’

‘Karl’ll do. I guess that makes sense. Whose car?’

‘I’ll drive, if you’re ok with that, Carlo,’ with a quick smile that softened Svensson’s irritation at the instant nickname. ‘I’ve been looking forward to getting out of the black and white,’ and the smile broadened into an engaging grin of anticipation.

 

A few weeks after that, Stone began to think he hadn’t made a mistake putting them together after all. They seemed to have fallen quickly into an easy way of working without that competitive edge that could get in the way. And as the months passed he watched them develop the physical and verbal shorthand of a well-rehearsed team.

 

The two detectives’ characters were as different as their looks. Svensson was a reticent and analytical man. Though decisive in action, he was prone to self-doubts and had rarely felt totally at home in the world, tending to find himself on the fringes of things, a discreet and quiet observer. He sometimes felt he was invisible, sometimes hoped he was. Giannini, by contrast, had no such doubts. In spite of a cool cynicism acquired through a life lived on the rougher side of society, he was physically and mentally at ease with the world and his place in it, confident in his view of right and wrong. He had actively chosen his side in that battle, leaving behind a family and community with distinctly more murky loyalties.

 

In 1953, when Alex was 13 and Joe Giannini came back from Korea, Alex had felt like all was well with the world. Joe was his war hero big brother who had survived the bullets of the bad guys and come home with honour and a medal. He wanted nothing more than to be as strong and fine as Joe. Things hadn’t looked quite so great for Joe himself. War was nothing like Alex’s teenage imagination painted it and Korea had not left Joe with a heroic self-image. It was not long before he fell in with the other disillusioned young hustlers, cousins and childhood companions following a family tradition. Small crimes led to bigger ones and by the time Alex was 16, Joe was a well-established gangster; by the time Alex was 18, Joe was in the state pen, on charges of drug dealing and manslaughter.

Alex had watched this transformation with sadness and dismay. But the effect on his developing character had been to harden his resolve to refuse that heritage, not to add to their mother’s shame. Though Joe had utterly failed to live up to Alex’s teenage ideal, the years since had only strengthened his belief in that ideal.

 

Giannini’s positive and generous nature made him a good colleague and companion, trusting and drawing trust from his fellows, free with his feelings and his strength. Ambivalence was not in his repertoire. A powerhouse in almost any context, he was happy to be the focal point of noise, action, laughter. In his company, Svensson began to find his own self-doubts retreating. An unexpected capacity for light-heartedness emerged, and he began to develop a role as willing straight man to Giannini’s boisterous comedian. It seemed as if the rocklike integrity of his partner gave Svensson the anchor he had needed to counter his uncertainties. Over the months and eventually years of their partnership, Svensson’s conscious gratitude was translated into a committed and absolute loyalty to his partner. In a less explicit way, Giannini was aware of this, and it became one more element of the solid structure of his world.

 

***

After a long pause, Giannini looked up again and scanned the room. ‘Where are those photos?’

‘Here.’ Walker got them out of the drawer and laid them on the desk. Drawing in a shuddering breath, Giannini again leafed through the pile, stopping at a close-up of Svensson’s face. He ran a finger gently over the sleek surface of the print, and began softly to speak.

‘We had a long weekend and Carlo had conned me into going camping. Not my kinda thing at all, but he always fancied himself the outdoor type. It was a bad idea. Nothing but bugs and rain and the tent blew down on the first night so we ended up sleeping in the car.’ Walker noticed for the first time his Boston accent. ‘Things didn’t get any better the second day and even Carlo stopped trying to pretend we were having fun. So we decided to head back to civilisation. Which would have been fine if the fucking deer hadn’t appeared out of nowhere…’

For a while he stopped speaking, as if his jaw could not move any more. His whole body was braced against some deep pressure.

To try and ease the tension, Walker asked, ‘who was driving?’

‘Me of course. It was my car…’

‘So you went off the road because you didn’t want to hit the deer?’

‘Oh I get it – you think I’m screwed up ’cause it was my fault we ended up rolling the car, my fault he’s dead? … Well, you’re wrong. It’s not some kind of guilt complex. He made us lose it, not me. I was just trying to slow down. He grabbed the wheel and pulled us over the edge … the stupid bastard. Why couldn’t he trust me?’

‘From what I’ve been told he trusted you plenty of times.’

‘What have you been told? That we were best buddies? We looked out for each other? Had each other’s back? That’s what I thought too.’

‘What changed? Just because he grabbed the wheel?’ Walker was sure this wasn’t it but he hoped Giannini would be driven to explain. But he just lowered his head to his hands.

‘I can’t do this now. I’m tired … I need to sleep.’

‘Sure. We can continue talking tomorrow if you want … whenever you’re ready.’

When Giannini had left the room, Walker looked through the photos again, looking for some sign of the bitterness he had heard in Giannini’s voice. He couldn’t find it. Nor could he find the photo Giannini had focused on.

In his cell-like room, Giannini lay face-down on the bed with the photo in his hand and tears soaking into the pillow.

Two days later Walker found Giannini waiting outside his room. He raised an eyebrow. ‘You’re eager today.’ Giannini shrugged and wheeled himself through the opening door. ‘So you’ve got something to say?’

‘You say you want to understand what happened that night? What changed?’ Giannini grimaced. ‘Ok, “padre”, hear my confession … and then you can tell me how I should feel.’

‘You know I can’t tell you that … but I’m listening.’ Giannini always wore a small suede pouch around his neck which he often touched, an unconscious self-comforting behaviour Walker had noted before, and he reached for it now.

‘Like I said, we had a long weekend and Carlo had dragged me on this dumb trip. I didn’t know why he’d been so pushy about it. I’d thought he’d gotten pissed off at me or something. He’d not been around so much for a while outside of work, always had something else to do, not like it used to be. Sometimes it felt like he didn’t even want to be in the same room with me. He’d made some crack about me being a pig, going on about political correctness – and not joking you know? I … But anyhow … we got to the site and put up the tent. And then the weather began to turn so there we were, sitting in this little wet tent with nothing to do but drink beer. And then he just announced this was a kind of farewell trip. He was gonna quit the police department. No explanation, just – I’m quitting. I didn’t know what to say to that.’

‘Were you angry with him?’

‘I guess so … but I couldn’t really believe it, you know? He’d always been there, nine years … so I just kept asking him – why?’

‘Did he explain?’

‘Not then, no. Oh he made up some stuff about getting too old for the life … I wasn’t buying that. I still thought it was about us – he’d had enough of me. But anyway then the weather really blew up and we had to deal with the tent collapsing on us.’ Giannini actually smiled at the memory and Walker got another glimpse of that other, gentler version of the man. ‘We ended up back in the car trying to get comfortable. It was like being on a stake-out or something. We had some stupid conversation about what he was gonna do next and how I was gonna get a gorgeous lady partner to replace him… All of it was bullshit. I began to think he was just conning me again like he always did. Turned out I was right.’ Giannini’s expression hardened again and Walker remembered the fury of the session a few days before.

***

 

Saturday night and for once, they had a weekend off. So naturally they were out on the town with their current girls, a new and casual partner in Svensson’s case, but Giannini actually seemed to be taking Jenny a bit more seriously. Not that that stopped him flirting with every pretty girl around. Karl found himself watching them, Jenny and Alex. Alex looked so happy, and so far away. When Jenny disappeared to the restroom, Karl had to remind himself to pay polite attention to Leanne. Leanne was not entirely fooled.

‘I don’t think you’ve got a hope there fella. Jenny’s really into him.’ And to herself, ‘can’t blame her…’

‘What…? No – I’m sorry. I’m just not with it tonight. Shall we get out of here? Do you want to go somewhere else?’

‘Never mind.’ She smiled pityingly. ‘I can take myself home.’

‘You been dumped pal?’ asked Alex, draping a tipsy arm round Karl’s shoulders and kissing him jokily on the temple. Jenny was laughing goodbye to Leanne on her way back to the booth.

‘I guess so,’ said Karl, trying not to move, not to break that tiny moment. But Jenny came back and reclaimed her place. ‘You guys want another drink?’ Karl muttered.

‘I wouldn’t say no,’ with a fake hiccup.

Svensson escaped to the bar and didn’t make much effort to catch the busy barman’s attention. But a skinny guy sitting at the bar caught his eye, ‘Looking for some company?’

‘No… just getting some drinks.’ And he ordered a couple of beers and a glass of red wine. The guy at the bar was looking back at Giannini and Jenny with an appraising eye.

‘So you’re the wallflower then? He looks pretty hot. Well and truly taken though. What do they say? All the best guys are straight?’ Drinks paid for, Svensson beat a retreat from the burst of sour laughter, hurrying back to the booth. Alex greeted him with one of those soft smiles Karl found so hard to bear, before turning to whisper into Jenny’s ear.

‘I’m splitting… Three’s a crowd huh?’ Karl stood up to go.

‘Don’t go, partner. The night is young and there are many lovelies out there.’ But Svensson shook his head.

‘G’night then … see you Monday.’ No one noticed the thin man leave his unfinished drink on the bar and follow Svensson out into the street.

 

***

‘So the next day you gave up on camping?’

‘Yeah … there didn’t seem to be anything to hang around for. So we packed up and headed down the mountain and then that bloody deer happened and things went even more to shit.’

‘You got yourselves out of the car though…’

‘There was gas everywhere – you could smell it – and I sure didn’t want to burn to death. Carlo was in a bad way, couldn’t move his legs, said he couldn’t feel them. I got us out somehow and dragged him far enough away from the car to be ok if it went up… God knows how much more damage I did him…  It was freezing though, with the wind and rain. Carlo began shaking with cold … So we were trying to keep each other warm, you know?’ Giannini stopped speaking and pulled out the photos again. Walker waited, trying not to do anything to disrupt him.

‘I think I fell asleep for a while. It was nearly dark … and then Carlo started to talk.’

Another long pause. Walker began to think that was all he was going to get this time, but then with a harsh intake of breath, Giannini began again. To Walker it seemed that in everything that followed Giannini had forgotten his presence; he was telling himself what had happened, remembering out loud, re-living it all clearly, perhaps for the first time.

‘He said he wasn’t going to make it this time. He knew there was too much broken and no one would be looking for us any time soon. I said you’re wrong, we’ll be ok like always. I’ve got a plan, I’ll torch the car when the rain stops and then we’ll be picked up and in the hospital in no time. But Carlo said, “No Al… Just the truth now. I’m not going anywhere.” And I know he’s right but I still keep on telling him how we’ll get out of here … he just waited for me to shut up…’

***

 

‘The truth. Al… I wanted to tell you the truth last night but I was too much of a coward. It doesn’t matter now.’

 

***

‘Doesn’t matter, he said!’ Giannini interrupted his own narrative, for a moment angry again. ‘As if it didn’t matter more then than it ever had…’

***

‘What doesn’t matter?’

‘The reason I was going to quit…’ Karl fell silent and for a moment there was just the sound of the persistent rain dripping through the trees.

‘And…?’ Alex nudged him gently to continue.

‘Will you do something for me?’

‘If I can. You know you never needed to ask.’

‘Forgive me?’

‘For wrecking my car? Never.’

‘No…no more jokes now Al… forgive me for being too scared to tell you before …forgive me for telling you now…’ even now the words did not come.

‘Telling me what? Why you’re quitting?’

‘Not just that …’ He fumbled in the dark to find Giannini’s hand, pulling it further into the pocket of warmth between them. ‘Why is it so hard to say? I … love you, Alex … and I couldn’t fake it anymore,’ Karl whispered. ‘Oh god… please…please…don’t hate me, Al. I’m sorry.’

‘How could I?’ With a warm hand on Karl’s cold cheek, Giannini reached up and lightly kissed him on the forehead.

‘Oh Alex… you…’ and Karl pulled him back down, until their cold lips met.

‘Ahh Carlo…’ And they had held on to each other in the dark, as if for dear life, as if to make up for all the time lost.

***

‘So he kissed you … and…?’ said Walker.

‘And how did that make me feel?’ asked Giannini savagely. ‘That’s what you shrinks want isn’t it? Well I liked it, ok? It was good. And I wanted more. God! In that moment all I wanted was more of him. And he was only going away from me.’ The grief and anger flooded out of him. ‘I wasn’t going to let him. I was going to get us out – I burnt the car. And all we had to do was stay alive till they came, that’s all… but he couldn’t do that little thing… He just stopped …’ With the unbearable words, tears were flowing freely down his face. A silence ticked by…

‘And so I waited … and it got very cold and he got colder and I got colder and it felt ok. It would have been ok.’

‘What would have been ok?’

Giannini looked at him as if it was obvious. ‘Dying.’

‘You might have. Do you wish you had?’

‘Yes!’

‘Why?’

‘Because there’s nothing left that makes any kind of sense! I thought I had a brother… But he was lying to me all those years … and then he gave me a glimpse of something that I didn’t know I wanted and took it straight away again…. And now… now I think I do hate him…’

‘Why?’ asked Walker, softly. Giannini glared at him, stopping his tears with anger.

‘Don’t you think I’ve got enough reasons? He took away my old life, my job, my partner, my fucking foot, for crying out loud!’ Walker looked sceptical. Giannini looked away again, his right hand reaching up to the cord around his neck, speaking once more as if to himself alone:

‘Why should I hate him? Because I still need him even though I don’t know who he was anymore, because he lied, because he left me alone, because he told me the truth … some weak part of me wishes I could forget it all, wishes he’d kept on lying till the end so I could go on being me…’ so quietly now Walker could barely hear it ‘… because some…vile…part of me is glad he didn’t make it back because I can’t imagine any way for us to be … because I don’t know who I am anymore…’

Minutes passed until he looked up at Walker again, exhausted, all anger spent. ‘He asked me to forgive him and I do, I have, but I need him to forgive me too. But he never can, can he?’

Walker took a deep breath as he searched for something to say to this.

‘I think perhaps you need to forgive yourself.’

‘That’s not how forgiveness works.’ Giannini turned his gaze away and his hands hung limp. Walker saw again the man he had met by the lake, utterly alone.

Drake: ‘Progress?’

‘I’m afraid I’ve just helped him prove to himself that he’s got nothing left to live for.’

‘Well done. Suicide watch?’

‘I think maybe so…’

That was Giannini’s last meeting with Walker. He had said all he had to say, all there was to say. But the clinic staff saw some signs of hope that he was finding a way back. He began to go out for walks in the grounds, using the crutches that he had ignored for so long. He seemed to be trying to wear himself out physically, though his nights were still restless and disturbed by dreams and flashbacks. The phantom pain continued, fuelling memories of the desperate hour it took to extricate himself from the crushing cage of pedals and metalwork.

Very rarely he wakes from a kinder dream – a vision of that unimaginable other life …

A white room, filled with light. Alex is sitting on the edge of a wide bed, looking at his foot on the floor. ‘Want a hand?’ He looks up at the tall unblemished figure, holding out a hand to him. Reaching up, he grasps the hand with both of his, but instead of standing, he leans back and twists. Karl is pulled off balance and lands, laughing, stretched out on his back beside him. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Bringing you down to my level… Come here…’

… but when the vision fades, his anger with Svensson returns. Why couldn’t he have told the truth long ago? He’d asked that question during the long night in the woods. And Karl had confessed his fear that Giannini would be disgusted, repelled…

‘So I kept my secret and I made do …’

‘Made do?’

‘Made do with “best buddies” and horseplay and pretending with all those girls … made do with strangers in the night … of course you would have been disgusted with me. I am!’

‘No Carlo … you should have trusted me … I would have understood. You’re my best friend…’

‘Listen to yourself, Al, and think about it… I don’t think you would have heard me.’

***

A late night conversation – truth and consequences.

‘Did you see that new girl in the bar tonight Carlo? What a pair of legs!’

‘You know Al, you really are a chauvinist pig. Has it ever occurred to you that a woman might be more than a body? A person, a friend, a partner?’

‘Why would I want that when I’ve got you, old buddy?’ said Giannini in his usual laidback teasing tone.

‘No, I’m serious here. Can’t you imagine wanting sex and friendship in the same place?’

‘I guess one day I’ll settle down and do that stuff, kids and all,’ another wide grin, ‘a son called Carlo maybe…  but hey, there’s no harm in having fun in the meantime is there? Are you telling me you’re leaving me for a lovely girl?’

‘Ach! There’s no talking to you is there?’

***

 

Another night shift. Dawdling down the familiar streets waiting for something or nothing to happen. It was usually something and this night it was a ‘shots fired’ callout. They arrived at the scene at the same time as a black and white patrol car. A kid was standing in the street screaming – ‘they’re over there! Over there!’ Pointing at a car rammed into the wall. Another kid was lying in the street, unmoving. ‘Another drive by?’ Giannini looked at Svensson and they cautiously approached the crashed car. ‘Not much of the “by” … looks like they’ve done our job for us,’ said Svensson. In the car the driver was draped over the wheel, apparently unconscious, and the passenger looked almost out of it, drugged or concussed.

‘Police! Throw out your weapons!’ yelled Giannini. Two guns skittered across the tarmac. Svensson kept his eyes and gun on the car as Giannini stepped carefully forward to open the near door. But then several things happened at once. Svensson registered a movement from the back seat, there was a shot and Giannini fell to the ground.

‘No!’ yelled Svensson.  The sound and sight of it hit him like a kick in the chest as he ran forward and dropped to Giannini’s side. ‘Al! You ok?’ A dark figure ran past them and was tackled by the uniformed officers. ‘Get an ambulance!’ Alex didn’t look good, Svensson thought. He hadn’t given the usual prayed-for reply. How many times had he lived through this fear? So many near misses… and they would joke about it like it didn’t matter, like lucky charms really worked. But then Giannini spoke.

 

‘You ok, Carlo? I think they got a bit of me this time.’ And his hand reached out. Karl squeezed it hard, and managed to respond.

‘You’ll be fine – just another scar to impress the ladies with.’ And Al’s face twisted in a kind of grin. As Svensson smiled back, relief washing through him, he found himself thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ But he doubted he would ever have the strength to cut himself adrift.

***

Adjacent to the hospital grounds were open fields. Giannini’s walks often took him down there where horses grazed, and sometimes in their company he began to feel a little peace.

Another case conference.

‘Any change with Giannini?’ Walker asked one of the nurses who’d been keeping an eye on him.

‘He’s still hardly talking – gone back into his shell I’m afraid.’ Nurse James blushed a little at the memory of her attempts to engage with him. ‘But he seems to like being around the horses.’

‘Now that’s an idea – let’s have a word with the livery yard, see if we can get him some more time with them. He doesn’t need to talk with a horse…’

And later still.

‘So I heard Giannini has asked for an appointment with prosthetics.’

‘He has? That’s great!’

So the weeks went. Giannini still rejected any talking therapy but began to spend all the hours he could at the stables, a quiet presence, filling buckets, grooming, mucking out. While in the company of horses it seemed that his mind was filled up with something else, a hint of that wholeness he had once had – a blessed relief from the consuming emotions and obsessive thoughts that had filled his days and still filled his dreams.

And a day came when the hospital agreed to let him go. The livery owner had suggested he might find work somewhere similar and a place was found at a stableyard out near the state park. ‘Not the best location,’ thought Walker. But Giannini seemed content with the arrangement.

‘A success story then, Walker. Well done, I never thought you’d do it,’ said Drake as they watched him go. And so it seemed – follow-ups and checks with his employers were all promising. Giannini was now a competent rider, in spite of the artificial foot, and a steady if uncommunicative and solitary employee.

18 months later, Walker spotted a minor news item in the local paper.

‘Inquest verdict on body recovered from state park: suicide. – The body of ex-detective Alessandro Giannini (38) was discovered in the woods off Rte 123 two weeks ago, cause of death a single gunshot to the head. Ballistics report states that only one bullet had been fired from an otherwise empty gun. The case is now closed. The police had no further comment on the sad loss of another of their colleagues. (Giannini’s partner Karl Svensson died 3 years ago in a traffic accident.)’

Jesus! We shouldn’t have left it like this, Walker thought. Let him cut himself off again. Too bloody willing to pretend we’d fixed him. If only…

***

 

At the end of a long and somewhat drunken night, slumped on a sofa in Giannini’s apartment, Karl raised his glass. ‘Well, we made it this far, partner. Here’s to another five years.’ Alex acknowledged the toast and then, a little sheepishly, pulled something out of his pocket.

‘I got us an anniversary gift…’

Raising his eyebrows, Karl took the small pouch hanging on a cord, and opened it. ‘A bullet…?’

‘Yeah…er … I got one for me too…’ pulling an identical pouch out from inside his shirt. ‘See … I had this thought … you know they say we’ve all got a bullet out there with our name on it? Well, I thought if you had the one with my name on it and I had yours, we’d be ok. Stupid, I know, but once I had the idea it felt like I had to do it.’ Karl peered at the bullet in his hand and made out the fine engraving: ‘Alex Giannini’.

‘Ok… you’re a superstitious idiot but … ok.’

***

Knowing it could not assuage his sense of guilt, Walker went to the stableyard, looking for an account of Giannini’s time there. The stable boss was sombre, leaning into the ugly old gelding he’d been grooming.

‘Alex had been riding up into the woods quite a lot lately. Staying out overnight sometimes. I thought he was turning into a bit of a mountain man. He seemed settled, calm, you know? You couldn’t call it happy, but accepting … he and Toby here made a good team.’

‘D’you think he’d been working himself up to it then? Going out there so many times?’

There was a long pause. The old horseman looked up towards the hills. He watched two broad-winged birds in the far sky, drifting in slow spirals higher and higher, their sharp calls dropping like pine needles to the forest floor.

‘Working himself up to it…? No… I think he’d made his decision a long time ago. … I think … he was just making sure Toby would know the way home.’

***

 

Epilogue: Karl’s dream

 

A white room, filled with light. Karl looks down at Alex, sitting on the edge of a wide bed, looking at his feet on the floor. ‘Want a hand?’ Alex looks up at Karl’s offered hand. Reaching up, he grasps it with both of his, but instead of standing, he leans back and twists. Karl is pulled off balance and lands, laughing, stretched out on his back beside him. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Bringing you down to my level… Come here…’

 

But Karl doesn’t move and Alex rolls on to his side to look at Karl’s face, the eyes moving under closed lids. He reaches a hand up and softly runs a finger across Karl’s lips. Karl turns his head and opens his eyes, lifting his own hand to brush his knuckles over Alex’s cheek and jaw. They stay for a moment, poised, eyes exploring the tiny details of each other’s face. Then Karl whispers, ‘I have so longed…’ and, turning his body towards Alex, he kisses the fragile skin below his eyes. Retreating again to look, he laughs and says, ‘I love your face.’ A tear brims over. Alex touches Karl’s wet cheek, the corner of his jaw. His fingers follow the long neck muscle down from jaw to throat. ‘Teach me.’ Then hands find flesh, taut tendons, muscles flex and grip, entwined, engulfed. Whose limbs, whose hands, whose sublimation?… It is all one, until they lie still again, coiled in deep lassitude, still but for a lift and fall of breath, and a murmur: ‘Love, let this be true…’

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Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

 

Beginnings and Endings – a short story

[re-post from my Short Fiction pages]

Photo1501

 

2010

Jane delved into the box she had dragged from her parents’ attic, along with other bits salvaged from the halflit dust. Her widowed father, Fred, not long deceased, had never told his children much of his past, and Jane remembered little of her grandparents, except a vague sense of exoticism and gentility. Belatedly she wished she had asked more when she could. But it was too late now – all the people she might ask were gone. All that was left were mute things, fragments without a guide to help her reassemble them, things she needed to sort through and dispose of, now that her parents’ house was emptied and waiting to be sold.

In the large cardboard box there were other, older boxes: shoe boxes full of photos from Jane’s own childhood and letters from before the age of ubiquitous phones, a small wooden box containing an opal ring and some other old jewelry, and a tattered brown envelope fat with official documents, birth, wedding and death certificates. At the bottom of the box there was a small cardboard chest of drawers which held older photographs and some unexpected and illegible papers written in old German fraktur, including two tattered passports – all she could read of them were the dates. There was a faded picture of three people sitting in the sun under a tree, Edwardian, she thought, judging by the woman’s long dress and the men’s moustaches. Like everyone in photos of that period they looked a bit stiff and formal, but she thought they were quite young and there was a hint of a smile on the woman’s face as she looked across at the taller of the two young men. Jane began to try to sort things into chronological order, but then wondered if that was the best way – perhaps she should sort them by the people they related to instead. There were several names she didn’t recognise. She would have to start by making a list, she decided:

Birth certificates: Jane 1960, Phil 1963, mum 1939, George Brown 1934 (?), Charles Beresford 1892 (granddad)

Wedding certificates: Charles Beresford and Clara Muller 1946, Frederick Beresford and Sybil Clarke 1959, Joe Brown and Sally Dennis 1932 (?)

Death certificates: mum 2006, granddad 1964, grandma 1967, Friedrich Muller 1944 (?) – She added her father’s death certificate to that pile. It looked like the box came from his side of the family as her mother’s parents weren’t evident. Maybe they were somewhere else in the attic. She’d have another look later. Back to the list:

Passports: Charles and Clara Beresford, Frederick and Sybil Beresford + 2 German passports??

Internment documents??? Clara Muller, Friedrich Muller 1942 – this was very intriguing. And it got stranger. Among all this officialdom, there was a letter in a child’s handwriting: ‘Dear Mum, Please can I come home? I don’t like it here. There ent any kids and I think the man and lady who live here with doctor B are spies. They talk funny and sometimes it sounds like there talkin forin. Love from Georgie’

Jane was didn’t know what to make of these things. She would pass them on to her daughter, she thought. She might be interested. She sent an email: ‘Hi hon. I’m sorting out your granddad’s stuff and I’ve found some old papers, letters and whatnot. I think you should have a look – there might be a story there. xx’

***

The clean, clear light of an early spring day shines through trees on to two young men walking, and talking as they walk, through rolling parkland. They are intent on their conversation, oblivious of their surroundings, the considered landscape with its specimen trees and well-proportioned vistas. What are they so engrossed by? What inspires these vehement gestures and excited interruptions? It is ideas that possess them, for they are Philosophers. Cocooned in all the privileges of gender, intellect, class and age, they are free to devote their energies to the creation and demolition of concepts, theories, ideologies. What luxury! And they walk through this park on their way to a university in a place and time in which deep thinking is of greatest value, when physicists and mathematicians stand on the heights, looking out over new landscapes of alternative geometries, when logicians are finding the limits of provability. It seems to them this is the best of all possible worlds, though they may debate at length the meaning of possibility.

Elsewhere though, other people are enthused by darker kinds of possibility. Ambition, power, empire, hatred. These are the ideas that will turn our young philosophers out of their little Eden. Green spaces will be destroyed by wheels and trenches, explosions and graves. Thinkers will be forced into action, chosen or otherwise, and their dreams of an ideal world will be tested by fear, anger and loss.

What else should be said of these men? That they were friends, that they meant well. That they would lose their youthful clarities in war and mud, at the behest of grimier men. They would be required to replace high abstractions with arbitrary divisions of rank and nationality, which would determine obedience and violent ends.

But before all that comes to pass, they are still students, of geology and mathematics, meeting at a lecture given by a ‘great thinker’, swept into a new realm of fundamental principles and crystalline axiology. It seems to open a space of infinite perspectives, sharply drawn, converging on a vanishing point of truth. The great man shows them a future that they lust for, of logic and rationality, of knowledge, orderly and beautiful. Careful exegesis, argument and analysis – these are the worthiest of vocations, both in themselves and for their yield of good judgement and wise action. Our young men have fallen in love with thought.

For months they have been drawn deeper and deeper into this place of pure reason, discovering an ancient polis of men (almost all men) whose conversations cross centuries and languages, exploring the ignored underpinnings of our daily lives, competing to find ways to interrogate the most innocent-seeming of assumptions. They are among the newest citizens of this exclusive community, but its vaunted egalitarianism encourages their intellectual ambitions, and they engage eagerly with the debates of Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant. Evenings in public houses resound with discussions of truth and meaning, essence and substance, appearances and things in themselves. It is a shining time, of civilised combat fought with the subtle weapons of syllogism and Occam’s razor, transcendental arguments and reductio ad absurdum. While fighting these verbal battles they are forging an alliance, the two of them against the dull worlds of their parents, and the expectations they imposed. The future is theirs and they will build it better than before. We can forgive their arrogance and hubris; they are young and it comes naturally. It will not last, but while it does, let them enjoy it, for they are doing no one harm.

Perhaps, dear (imagined) reader, you would like a few more specifics, names and dates. Let’s see… Our ex-geologist (call him Charles) is a tall and solid young man; he looks more like a sportsman than an academic. Raised in comfortable, though not overly wealthy circumstances, he is the scion of a line of clerics, rebellious in his pursuit of an earthy Darwinian science. Perhaps his philosophical turn is a relapse into family tradition – also Darwinian in its way. He is the foreigner here, a temporary émigré to exotic continental climes.

His friend is Friedrich, much closer to the type of ‘scholar’, thin, bearded, dark-eyed. He is not far from home, another place of religious roots, with rabbis some generations back in the family tree, though its latest branch bears Lutherans. The two men visit sometimes with Friedrich’s family – solemn father, reserved mother, and a sister. A sister with whom, of course, Charles is entranced. Clara is as tall as her brother and stronger, a fierce suffragist, full of passion and intention. But she is also quick to laugh and to find the world joyful, and seems quite unaware of the spell she has cast over Charles. Friedrich is very aware of it, however, and a little jealous, though he loves his sister too. The three of them share summer afternoons and imaginings of new worlds to come. People passing by on sunny promenades smile as these three, unwitting, fill the air with their intense enthusiasms and their youthful beauty, speaking a private language of shared hopes and jokes and teasing glances.

Clara pulls the men away from their high abstractions and forces them to think about the lives of people, and how they should be better. She is an evangelist without a god, preaching for equality and self-determination, reminding Charles and Friedrich that their freedoms are not universal. Friedrich, always happier in the dry, clean world of numbers and Platonic Forms, tends to make scornful fun of her flights of fury (he is her brother after all). But Charles is converted, at least for the duration of their conversation, and for a while metaphysics seems to him vacuous and self-indulgent, when there is so much to be done.

What will become of these idealists, when their world is shaken, turned upside down, like a snowglobe in the bloody hands of careless gods?

 

There will be a day when Charles, awful newspaper in hand, will announce he must go back to England. They of course agree with this necessity, with tears and solemn promises that they will not let war destroy friendship. There is no choice. Charles must return to his familiar and now fragile home, taking with him the silver and opal ring he had planned to give to Clara one day, when the time was right.

There will be a day when Clara runs shrieking after Friedrich, in a vain attempt to stop him from joining up. He does not know why he ignores her, but feels somehow that he cannot refuse the call to defend his country. It is her fault in a way. She has persuaded him of the duty of solidarity with the oppressed and, because of his position of relative privilege, he cannot stand aside while others are called to risk themselves on his behalf. His fellow soldiers call him ‘the boffin’ and though amused by his practical ineptitude, they tolerate him for his honesty and good will.

Charles instead will refuse to fight against the ‘enemy’ he knows as a home from home, where he found his better self, remembering Clara’s sermons on humanity and peace in a fairer world. In spite of white feathers and disdain he will hold to his decision, becoming a stretcher bearer or some other such noble, pacific figure. He will learn to avoid words, or to utter empty lies, will learn how not to look dying men in the face, to protect them from knowledge of the truth. Perhaps he and Friedrich will meet on a battlefield … but no. That is preposterous – they are tiny motes in a vast swarm floating in the current. Even if they should pass nearby no meeting is possible there.

Clara herself will struggle to find a role that makes sense to her. Much of her first war will be spent with her aging parents, who cannot comprehend this fractured time and the wreck of all their hopes for their children. Clara will, of course, become a volunteer nurse, and the men she tends will gaze at her, amazed at this gently smiling vision of an unbroken world. But they cannot tell that she is broken too; her smiles are only a faint echo of the laughter that used to come so easily.

At some point, in a trench somewhere, Friedrich will contemplate the particularity of a broken plank, splintered and sodden, and watch the rain trickle down into the ditchwater at his feet, while the distant sound of bombardments and nearer mumbled speech buzz, meaningless, in his ears. He can no longer remember why he is there. He only knows that at this moment he is sitting in the mud in the rain, holding a rifle for which he has no ammunition left, and that a rain drop is shining in a moment of sun. Then the planks erupt, and ditchwater rises to join the falling rain and he is half buried in the liquid earth. When he returns home (which he does, dear reader – no suspense here), he will be quiet and thin and short of breath, and Clara’s welcome will be hollow. They are neither of them the same and she cannot be sure this faded man is her brother any more.

History will move on and the three will endure somehow. Clara will find it hard to care when women’s suffrage comes to pass, and will not use her vote to choose between indistinguishable alternatives. She and Friedrich will become teachers, as was always expected. While, in England, Charles … what will Charles do? Marry a nice, uncomprehending girl? Join the church (well – perhaps not). Become a pillar of the community in a provincial town, taking over the family business? Retreat to a reclusive life in some wild, isolated place? Or wander, never settling, watching the bright young things and learning to drink cocktails in London nightclubs, matter for facetious gossip columns. All these things are possible. But what he will not do is return to the ivory tower. There is no room for grand abstractions when so many grainy memories fill his head. When the real is endless mud and a dying boy’s hand grasping his, the concepts of number or ontology lose their weight.

All three, though they have lived through war, feel that this survival means little – the life before is entirely lost, and who they were in it. So those promises they made on parting, that friendship could withstand whatever came, are invalidated, the friends who made them gone.

And more years pass; the terrible consequences of war and peace unfold. Friedrich and Clara, orphans now, come to realise they will have to leave their home at last. They pack up the few things they can take, discarding the relics of youth with brief regret, and take a train to a gull-grey coastal town. A ferry ploughs through winter sea to deposit them in another country, strange to them but more hospitable now than their fatherland.

Charles meanwhile has been reminded, by ominous reports from overseas, of the time before the war, and wondered vaguely what might have become of Friedrich and Clara, though now they seem to him like characters in a novel, partial, figments of someone else’s imagination. But he is not totally surprised when one day he receives a letter, written on flimsy hotel notepaper, apologetic and hesitant, wondering if old acquaintances might meet again, for old times’ sake? The continental handwriting carries him back, and he wonders if perhaps they have not changed as much as he. Images spring to mind of Clara running towards him in sunlight, of Friedrich frowning in thought … but he shakes them out of his head, and writes a brief reply, suggesting they meet on neutral ground.

When brother and sister come into the tea room, he almost fails to recognise them, except for the foreign look of their clothes and the uncertainty of their searching gaze as they scan the room. They have become middle-aged and self-consciousness has grown in them – the desire for invisibility in a threatening world is deep-rooted now. They too find it hard to pick out Charles, one polite Englishman among others, reserved and worldly-wise (world weary?).

Cautious greetings are exchanged, like strangers introduced by a mutual friend. Charles quickly understands that it was not old times’ sake that led them to seek him out, but pressing need. With no contacts and the wrong accent, finding a means to earn a living is proving even harder than they had expected. These refugees have little left now, of resources or hope. It is another hard thing to ask for charity from this unfamiliar man, to shed another layer of pride. But Charles’ memories of his former self and theirs are vivid enough to make his answer automatic and redeeming. ‘Please come and stay with me. It would be …’ with a remembered smile ‘…like old times.’ And as a grateful, exhausted tear escapes, Clara comes alive to him again. Friedrich sees his friend shift and breathe, like a kaleidoscope turned, changing dark to brightness, garnet and ebony to topaz and leaf-green. And people around them suddenly notice these three, as if a spotlight has been turned on, to reveal three glamorous creatures who demand attention, as their shining eyes meet across the empty teacups, across years.

 

Is there more to this story? Well surely, there must be. Their lives will go on…long lives and history does not stop. Let us see…

It transpires that Charles had gone from stretcher bearer to orderly to medical student to doctor. So when his foreign friends arrive they are absorbed into his established life. His status is high enough and secure enough to forgive his reserve and eccentricity and even to spill over on to these unusual newcomers.

When war comes again, this time they find themselves held closer together by its disturbing forces, at least for a while. Their various skills are of use – Charles will care for the jetsam thrown back by conflict. Friedrich and Clara will become translators of propaganda and of coded messages, working for an obscure branch of government, official traitors to their homeland. But they will cling to their friendship for strength and anchorage, firmer than family or nation.

One day a new member will be squeezed into their little circle, a child, evacuated, lonely. This boy is homesick and scared, at first, of these three, who appear to him strange and forbidding with their dry, academic style, and fierce-sounding foreign conversations (for they revert to the language of their youth from time to time, and sometimes indulge in bursts of philosophy – even that old love seems to be renewed). The boy writes home to his abandoned mother, left alone while her sailor husband endures Atlantic storms, and begs to come back to her in spite of the air raids. She receives his letter (long-delayed) and in turn writes to some wartime bureaucrat to demand that her boy be removed from this house of spies. Though by now the boy is happy in his adopted home and Clara’s long-abandoned capacity for maternal love is revived. The wheels of official paranoia start to turn, slow but inexorable.

One day a sombre person will knock on their door to demand their papers and to label them; ‘enemy aliens’ they are now, a threat to the war effort, to be contained on a remote island in the Irish Sea, windswept and rain-washed. Charles pleads for them, but he fails to convince. A suspicion has been raised and that is enough in such times. ‘What suspicion?’ Charles asks, outraged. And the boy looks on, half hidden behind a door, drowning in his guilt. Friedrich and Clara, true to the official secrets act, do not use their war work as a defence. In a last attempt, Charles asserts, with a commanding look at Clara, that she is his fiancée and should be allowed to stay with him, or if not that, that he should be allowed to accompany his wife-to-be to the internment camp. But Clara would not allow this, even had it been possible, even had it been true; she must stay with her brother and Charles must let them go.

What of the boy? Officialdom demands that he return to his mother, though now he begs to stay. Charles takes on the task of delivering him and they travel together to the capital, by train, bemused by the destruction they can see as they near their destination. They walk hand in hand down the terraced street looking for the right house, but there is no one there to greet them. A neighbour appears, and cries out in sympathy. ‘I’m so sorry, Georgie. Your mum’s gone, lad. She was caught out by the sirens. It was a doodlebug. I’m so sorry.’ A silence – like the silence Sally must have heard before it fell. When they enter the house, the boy is given a box of letters and a few bits and pieces – fragments to remember her by. So he will stay with Charles after all – orphaned entirely when his father’s ship is sunk out there in the dark sea.

And when war ends once more, after enduring internment and the grief of Friedrich’s death, Clara will return to Charles and George, who have made a kind of family. Charles and Clara will marry at last, quietly, in acknowledgement of his long love and her fond gratitude, which is hard to distinguish from love. Together they will still recall those distant days, and in spite of so much change and loss, their lives, their selves, will stretch to hold all this and more: sunlit youth, two wars, a lost brother, and a found, forgiven boy, George Frederick Brown, who will become Frederick Beresford, their only child.

***

So there are the bare bones of a story – or, not bones, rather, threadbare coats hanging on a few hooks of old papers and scant facts. It may seem to be a sad story. The lives that began an age ago did not run as hoped and planned. History forced them into awkward shapes. Is that why it seems sad? (Shall we indulge in a little philosophy for the sake of Charles and Friedrich and Clara and their youth?) Or is it just that our story followed them to their ends, and we see an end, of any life we have paid attention to, as sad, whatever happened in it?

We need warm flesh to fill out these musty clothes, to remind us of the rest, to remind us that the end of a life is only a fraction of the whole. So look again in the chest of photographs, dog-eared and faded. Here’s one: Clara, silhouetted against a sunny window, seated at a baby grand in her parents’ house, Friedrich beside her with his violin. They are playing something exquisite. It must be exquisite or how could you explain the exalted look that passes between them, of concentration and of shared intention? And here’s another, from a different time: a day trip to a place that might have been theirs, two figures seated in a punt, amused but regal, looking back at Charles, who poles them past mediaeval walls with pretend solemnity. And here’s another: white-haired Charles and Clara with a blurry baby, the proud grandparents…

***

‘Oh, that’s me!’ And Jane looks round at the pile of refugees from the attic. It includes a violin case, so light she had thought it empty. But she opens it now, and there, resting in dark blue velvet is Friedrich’s violin and in the little compartment for resin there’s a piece of paper, folded small. She opens it out carefully; its creases are worn and fragile. On one side there’s a concert programme, typed on an old machine (an Underwood?), for a performance by and for the internees. In between a tenor (Danny Boy, of course) and a pennywhistle, there they are: ‘Clara and Friedrich Muller – violin and piano, Fauré – Berceuse Op. 16’ (the accent added by some precise hand). On the back of the programme, in spidery black ink:

Man sagt, dass die Toten nicht wirklich tot sind, solange wir an sie erinnern…

People say that the dead are not truly dead, as long as we remember them. But how could that be? Something may be preserved, some trace, some effect of a life, but nothing remains of the self that lived it. For a conscious being, to be is not to be remembered, or to be perceived; to be is to perceive, to act, to feel, to remember. When such a being ends, their world ends, and all the things kept alive by their remembering (if such a thing were possible) end with it. But still we will remember, and do our best to keep the dead alive.

 

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

It’s all a question of scale…

This is a story I wrote last year – it’s a bit clunky, but it seemed to resonate with some comments I’ve heard and read lately about hubris, climate change, transience, etc. (See On the Western Edge.)

Allegory

I have arrived at a stopping place today. It seems to be where I was going. There is a house by the shore, with everything I need. The door was open and the kitchen cupboards stocked with my favourite things. No one is around, no vehicles, so I guess it’ll be ok to stay here for a bit.

I like it here. It’s very peaceful and it only rains at night. There are a lot of birds in the wood and one of them keeps appearing outside the window. I put out some bread and water for it…

I’ve adopted (or been adopted by) a dog. It’s a mongrelly thing, the colour of sand. It seems friendly.

 

Dog had been watching her for a while. He knew what was going to happen and was not looking forward to it. He had a soft spot for humans so he had appointed himself chaperone, but it wouldn’t make any difference to the outcome.

The others were starting to arrive. When Cat appeared she acknowledged the dog with a slight glance. This was a place apart; diplomatic protocol prevailed, though the smaller birds would still fly up in agitation when anyone came too close. Quiet sheep stood around cropping the short grass and Frog hopped gratefully into the pond. It had been a long journey for the small creatures.

 

It’s getting very weird out there now – the tame bird is still around, and the dog. But there’s also lots of other animals – a sheep, a cat, a frog, a deer, a goose, and even a large lizard. Surprisingly they all seem to get on, and they ignore me, except for the dog, which often watches me when I go out into the garden. Something strange is happening, but then I knew that already.

 

Typical of her species, the woman had not noticed any of the smallest creatures present, or the largest. She was aware only of the animals similar to her in size and type. At last all the representatives had assembled. ‘It is time to go to the place of the Eldest,’ said Cat. ‘I’ll bring the human,’ said Dog. There was a collar and lead hanging by the back door of the house. Dog pulled it off the hook and carried it to the woman. ‘Do you want to go for a walk then? Walkies?’ she asked, in that special voice they have for non-humans and babies. Dog was used to it though and found it quite endearing. It reminded him of the people who had adopted him when he was a puppy.

Once she had put the collar on him and attached the lead, he took her out of the house and down the path. It was not a long walk to the meeting place, so the woman did not object. She even managed to believe she was taking Dog for a walk, and when they stepped into the clearing she stopped of her own accord and gazed up into the heights of the huge tree that grew there, amazed.

The representatives arranged themselves in the open space, and the debate began. Goose spoke first; she had no fear of public speaking and was always quick to voice an opinion. ‘We cannot let this go on. They are disturbing all the patterns. I have seen it, from the winterlands in the south to the summer breeding grounds. Everything is changing. It is time to act.’

‘But what can we do? They are everywhere and so busy all the time. How can we stop them? They don’t even notice us most of the time. And when they do, they put out traps.’ This was Mouse.

‘What choice do we have? They are going to take our homes and kill us all in the end if we let them. We must fight back.’ Goose was shouting louder now.

‘But they look after us. How can we fight against them?’ The others looked at Sheep and shook their heads in disgust. ‘If you were a proper animal you wouldn’t need them to look after you. You’ll just have to learn to cope again like you used to.’

‘Perhaps they will realise what is happening and stop?’ This was from one of the smallest representatives, a bacterium. ‘We can, we stop multiplying when we run out of room. Surely such clever animals will do the same. We just need to give them time.’

‘If they were going to do that they’d have done it by now. They only seem to be clever. They can’t see beyond their little world; they have no sense of the things around it, the things that sustain it.’ This was Cat, whose detached voice carried weight. She did not often condescend to join in the conversation.

‘But what can we do? Mouse is right. They may not be clever but they are very powerful.’

‘So are we. We are many and if we act together they cannot stand against us.’

‘Are you saying we declare war?’ asked Dog. This was what he had feared. Dogs had thrown in their lot with humans long ago. It would be hard to break that bond.

‘Yes’ said Lizard. ‘We must or it will be the end of everything.’

The discussion went on, tactics and strategies, ways to combine the skills of the species against the human empire. Dog was quiet though, watching the woman as she sat oblivious among them. He was the one who had argued that there should be a human representative at the convocation. It might mitigate the anger, he thought, if there was a reminder of the innocence of a solitary human. At least the species should not be tried, judged and sentenced in absentia. But it made no difference. The woman’s total unawareness of what was happening around her made things worse. As Lizard pointed out, ‘there’s no talking to them – they don’t understand. Look at her.’

Then, in a lull in the debate, a new voice was heard, deep and slow, a humming in the ground beneath them. ‘You are all as foolish as the humans.’

‘Eldest … you honour us,’ they all spoke the ritual words, then fell silent, waiting for the ancient voice to continue. ‘You do not need to wage war. You only need patience. This has happened before – I have seen it. The balance will be restored. It is already happening. You smallest ones – soon you will be strong again. The weapons they use against you have made you stronger. And my ancestors and yours that they have pulled out of the ground for fuel – they are almost gone. Change is coming, to the humans and to all of us. But that is nothing new. You do not need to make it happen. It will come.’

‘But that is why we need to fight! We do not want this change. It will destroy so many of us, not just the humans! We want things the way they were before.’

‘I said you were fools. There is no going back. Time will not stop for you.’

‘What should we do then, Eldest?’ asked Mouse.

‘Live your little lives. What else? That is all anything can ever do.’

A silence fell. A breeze passed through the clearing. The woman watched a leaf fall from the highest branch of the great tree. ‘The sun is setting, dog. Shall we go home?’ She stood up and Dog followed her back down the path towards the house.

Today was the strangest yet. I took the dog for a walk and we found all the animals in a clearing in the wood. It was almost as if they were talking to each other. There was a tree – the biggest I have ever seen. It gave me a leaf… I mean a leaf fell, even though it is not autumn, a green leaf – but it is turning brown already. I have pressed it in a big book to keep it safe. And I’ve remembered where I came from, where I should be. So I will go back tomorrow. I hope the dog will come with me…

Beginnings and Endings – a short story

 

Photo1501

 

2010

Jane delved into the box she had dragged from her parents’ attic, along with other bits salvaged from the halflit dust. Her widowed father, Fred, not long deceased, had never told his children much of his past, and Jane remembered little of her grandparents, except a vague sense of exoticism and gentility. Belatedly she wished she had asked more when she could. But it was too late now – all the people she might ask were gone. All that was left were mute things, fragments without a guide to help her reassemble them, things she needed to sort through and dispose of, now that her parents’ house was emptied and waiting to be sold.

In the large cardboard box there were other, older boxes: shoe boxes full of photos from Jane’s own childhood and letters from before the age of ubiquitous phones, a small wooden box containing an opal ring and some other old jewelry, and a tattered brown envelope fat with official documents, birth, wedding and death certificates. At the bottom of the box there was a small cardboard chest of drawers which held older photographs and some unexpected and illegible papers written in old German fraktur, including two tattered passports – all she could read of them were the dates. There was a faded picture of three people sitting in the sun under a tree, Edwardian, she thought, judging by the woman’s long dress and the men’s moustaches. Like everyone in photos of that period they looked a bit stiff and formal, but she thought they were quite young and there was a hint of a smile on the woman’s face as she looked across at the taller of the two young men. Jane began to try to sort things into chronological order, but then wondered if that was the best way – perhaps she should sort them by the people they related to instead. There were several names she didn’t recognise. She would have to start by making a list, she decided:

Birth certificates: Jane 1960, Phil 1963, mum 1939, George Brown 1934 (?), Charles Beresford 1892 (granddad)

Wedding certificates: Charles Beresford and Clara Muller 1946, Frederick Beresford and Sybil Clarke 1959, Joe Brown and Sally Dennis 1932 (?)

Death certificates: mum 2006, granddad 1964, grandma 1967, Friedrich Muller 1944 (?) – She added her father’s death certificate to that pile. It looked like the box came from his side of the family as her mother’s parents weren’t evident. Maybe they were somewhere else in the attic. She’d have another look later. Back to the list:

Passports: Charles and Clara Beresford, Frederick and Sybil Beresford + 2 German passports??

Internment documents??? Clara Muller, Friedrich Muller 1942 – this was very intriguing. And it got stranger. Among all this officialdom, there was a letter in a child’s handwriting: ‘Dear Mum, Please can I come home? I don’t like it here. There ent any kids and I think the man and lady who live here with doctor B are spies. They talk funny and sometimes it sounds like there talkin forin. Love from Georgie’

Jane was didn’t know what to make of these things. She would pass them on to her daughter, she thought. She might be interested. She sent an email: ‘Hi hon. I’m sorting out your granddad’s stuff and I’ve found some old papers, letters and whatnot. I think you should have a look – there might be a story there. xx’

***

The clean, clear light of an early spring day shines through trees on to two young men walking, and talking as they walk, through rolling parkland. They are intent on their conversation, oblivious of their surroundings, the considered landscape with its specimen trees and well-proportioned vistas. What are they so engrossed by? What inspires these vehement gestures and excited interruptions? It is ideas that possess them, for they are Philosophers. Cocooned in all the privileges of gender, intellect, class and age, they are free to devote their energies to the creation and demolition of concepts, theories, ideologies. What luxury! And they walk through this park on their way to a university in a place and time in which deep thinking is of greatest value, when physicists and mathematicians stand on the heights, looking out over new landscapes of alternative geometries, when logicians are finding the limits of provability. It seems to them this is the best of all possible worlds, though they may debate at length the meaning of possibility.

Elsewhere though, other people are enthused by darker kinds of possibility. Ambition, power, empire, hatred. These are the ideas that will turn our young philosophers out of their little Eden. Green spaces will be destroyed by wheels and trenches, explosions and graves. Thinkers will be forced into action, chosen or otherwise, and their dreams of an ideal world will be tested by fear, anger and loss.

What else should be said of these men? That they were friends, that they meant well. That they would lose their youthful clarities in war and mud, at the behest of grimier men. They would be required to replace high abstractions with arbitrary divisions of rank and nationality, which would determine obedience and violent ends.

But before all that comes to pass, they are still students, of geology and mathematics, meeting at a lecture given by a ‘great thinker’, swept into a new realm of fundamental principles and crystalline axiology. It seems to open a space of infinite perspectives, sharply drawn, converging on a vanishing point of truth. The great man shows them a future that they lust for, of logic and rationality, of knowledge, orderly and beautiful. Careful exegesis, argument and analysis – these are the worthiest of vocations, both in themselves and for their yield of good judgement and wise action. Our young men have fallen in love with thought.

For months they have been drawn deeper and deeper into this place of pure reason, discovering an ancient polis of men (almost all men) whose conversations cross centuries and languages, exploring the ignored underpinnings of our daily lives, competing to find ways to interrogate the most innocent-seeming of assumptions. They are among the newest citizens of this exclusive community, but its vaunted egalitarianism encourages their intellectual ambitions, and they engage eagerly with the debates of Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant. Evenings in public houses resound with discussions of truth and meaning, essence and substance, appearances and things in themselves. It is a shining time, of civilised combat fought with the subtle weapons of syllogism and Occam’s razor, transcendental arguments and reductio ad absurdum. While fighting these verbal battles they are forging an alliance, the two of them against the dull worlds of their parents, and the expectations they imposed. The future is theirs and they will build it better than before. We can forgive their arrogance and hubris; they are young and it comes naturally. It will not last, but while it does, let them enjoy it, for they are doing no one harm.

Perhaps, dear (imagined) reader, you would like a few more specifics, names and dates. Let’s see… Our ex-geologist (call him Charles) is a tall and solid young man; he looks more like a sportsman than an academic. Raised in comfortable, though not overly wealthy circumstances, he is the scion of a line of clerics, rebellious in his pursuit of an earthy Darwinian science. Perhaps his philosophical turn is a relapse into family tradition – also Darwinian in its way. He is the foreigner here, a temporary émigré to exotic continental climes.

His friend is Friedrich, much closer to the type of ‘scholar’, thin, bearded, dark-eyed. He is not far from home, another place of religious roots, with rabbis some generations back in the family tree, though its latest branch bears Lutherans. The two men visit sometimes with Friedrich’s family – solemn father, reserved mother, and a sister. A sister with whom, of course, Charles is entranced. Clara is as tall as her brother and stronger, a fierce suffragist, full of passion and intention. But she is also quick to laugh and to find the world joyful, and seems quite unaware of the spell she has cast over Charles. Friedrich is very aware of it, however, and a little jealous, though he loves his sister too. The three of them share summer afternoons and imaginings of new worlds to come. People passing by on sunny promenades smile as these three, unwitting, fill the air with their intense enthusiasms and their youthful beauty, speaking a private language of shared hopes and jokes and teasing glances.

Clara pulls the men away from their high abstractions and forces them to think about the lives of people, and how they should be better. She is an evangelist without a god, preaching for equality and self-determination, reminding Charles and Friedrich that their freedoms are not universal. Friedrich, always happier in the dry, clean world of numbers and Platonic Forms, tends to make scornful fun of her flights of fury (he is her brother after all). But Charles is converted, at least for the duration of their conversation, and for a while metaphysics seems to him vacuous and self-indulgent, when there is so much to be done.

What will become of these idealists, when their world is shaken, turned upside down, like a snowglobe in the bloody hands of careless gods?

 

There will be a day when Charles, awful newspaper in hand, will announce he must go back to England. They of course agree with this necessity, with tears and solemn promises that they will not let war destroy friendship. There is no choice. Charles must return to his familiar and now fragile home, taking with him the silver and opal ring he had planned to give to Clara one day, when the time was right.

There will be a day when Clara runs shrieking after Friedrich, in a vain attempt to stop him from joining up. He does not know why he ignores her, but feels somehow that he cannot refuse the call to defend his country. It is her fault in a way. She has persuaded him of the duty of solidarity with the oppressed and, because of his position of relative privilege, he cannot stand aside while others are called to risk themselves on his behalf. His fellow soldiers call him ‘the boffin’ and though amused by his practical ineptitude, they tolerate him for his honesty and good will.

Charles instead will refuse to fight against the ‘enemy’ he knows as a home from home, where he found his better self, remembering Clara’s sermons on humanity and peace in a fairer world. In spite of white feathers and disdain he will hold to his decision, becoming a stretcher bearer or some other such noble, pacific figure. He will learn to avoid words, or to utter empty lies, will learn how not to look dying men in the face, to protect them from knowledge of the truth. Perhaps he and Friedrich will meet on a battlefield … but no. That is preposterous – they are tiny motes in a vast swarm floating in the current. Even if they should pass nearby no meeting is possible there.

Clara herself will struggle to find a role that makes sense to her. Much of her first war will be spent with her aging parents, who cannot comprehend this fractured time and the wreck of all their hopes for their children. Clara will, of course, become a volunteer nurse, and the men she tends will gaze at her, amazed at this gently smiling vision of an unbroken world. But they cannot tell that she is broken too; her smiles are only a faint echo of the laughter that used to come so easily.

At some point, in a trench somewhere, Friedrich will contemplate the particularity of a broken plank, splintered and sodden, and watch the rain trickle down into the ditchwater at his feet, while the distant sound of bombardments and nearer mumbled speech buzz, meaningless, in his ears. He can no longer remember why he is there. He only knows that at this moment he is sitting in the mud in the rain, holding a rifle for which he has no ammunition left, and that a rain drop is shining in a moment of sun. Then the planks erupt, and ditchwater rises to join the falling rain and he is half buried in the liquid earth. When he returns home (which he does, dear reader – no suspense here), he will be quiet and thin and short of breath, and Clara’s welcome will be hollow. They are neither of them the same and she cannot be sure this faded man is her brother any more.

History will move on and the three will endure somehow. Clara will find it hard to care when women’s suffrage comes to pass, and will not use her vote to choose between indistinguishable alternatives. She and Friedrich will become teachers, as was always expected. While, in England, Charles … what will Charles do? Marry a nice, uncomprehending girl? Join the church (well – perhaps not). Become a pillar of the community in a provincial town, taking over the family business? Retreat to a reclusive life in some wild, isolated place? Or wander, never settling, watching the bright young things and learning to drink cocktails in London nightclubs, matter for facetious gossip columns. All these things are possible. But what he will not do is return to the ivory tower. There is no room for grand abstractions when so many grainy memories fill his head. When the real is endless mud and a dying boy’s hand grasping his, the concepts of number or ontology lose their weight.

All three, though they have lived through war, feel that this survival means little – the life before is entirely lost, and who they were in it. So those promises they made on parting, that friendship could withstand whatever came, are invalidated, the friends who made them gone.

And more years pass; the terrible consequences of war and peace unfold. Friedrich and Clara, orphans now, come to realise they will have to leave their home at last. They pack up the few things they can take, discarding the relics of youth with brief regret, and take a train to a gull-grey coastal town. A ferry ploughs through winter sea to deposit them in another country, strange to them but more hospitable now than their fatherland.

Charles meanwhile has been reminded, by ominous reports from overseas, of the time before the war, and wondered vaguely what might have become of Friedrich and Clara, though now they seem to him like characters in a novel, partial, figments of someone else’s imagination. But he is not totally surprised when one day he receives a letter, written on flimsy hotel notepaper, apologetic and hesitant, wondering if old acquaintances might meet again, for old times’ sake? The continental handwriting carries him back, and he wonders if perhaps they have not changed as much as he. Images spring to mind of Clara running towards him in sunlight, of Friedrich frowning in thought … but he shakes them out of his head, and writes a brief reply, suggesting they meet on neutral ground.

When brother and sister come into the tea room, he almost fails to recognise them, except for the foreign look of their clothes and the uncertainty of their searching gaze as they scan the room. They have become middle-aged and self-consciousness has grown in them – the desire for invisibility in a threatening world is deep-rooted now. They too find it hard to pick out Charles, one polite Englishman among others, reserved and worldly-wise (world weary?).

Cautious greetings are exchanged, like strangers introduced by a mutual friend. Charles quickly understands that it was not old times’ sake that led them to seek him out, but pressing need. With no contacts and the wrong accent, finding a means to earn a living is proving even harder than they had expected. These refugees have little left now, of resources or hope. It is another hard thing to ask for charity from this unfamiliar man, to shed another layer of pride. But Charles’ memories of his former self and theirs are vivid enough to make his answer automatic and redeeming. ‘Please come and stay with me. It would be …’ with a remembered smile ‘…like old times.’ And as a grateful, exhausted tear escapes, Clara comes alive to him again. Friedrich sees his friend shift and breathe, like a kaleidoscope turned, changing dark to brightness, garnet and ebony to topaz and leaf-green. And people around them suddenly notice these three, as if a spotlight has been turned on, to reveal three glamorous creatures who demand attention, as their shining eyes meet across the empty teacups, across years.

 

Is there more to this story? Well surely, there must be. Their lives will go on…long lives and history does not stop. Let us see…

It transpires that Charles had gone from stretcher bearer to orderly to medical student to doctor. So when his foreign friends arrive they are absorbed into his established life. His status is high enough and secure enough to forgive his reserve and eccentricity and even to spill over on to these unusual newcomers.

When war comes again, this time they find themselves held closer together by its disturbing forces, at least for a while. Their various skills are of use – Charles will care for the jetsam thrown back by conflict. Friedrich and Clara will become translators of propaganda and of coded messages, working for an obscure branch of government, official traitors to their homeland. But they will cling to their friendship for strength and anchorage, firmer than family or nation.

One day a new member will be squeezed into their little circle, a child, evacuated, lonely. This boy is homesick and scared, at first, of these three, who appear to him strange and forbidding with their dry, academic style, and fierce-sounding foreign conversations (for they revert to the language of their youth from time to time, and sometimes indulge in bursts of philosophy – even that old love seems to be renewed). The boy writes home to his abandoned mother, left alone while her sailor husband endures Atlantic storms, and begs to come back to her in spite of the air raids. She receives his letter (long-delayed) and in turn writes to some wartime bureaucrat to demand that her boy be removed from this house of spies. Though by now the boy is happy in his adopted home and Clara’s long-abandoned capacity for maternal love is revived. The wheels of official paranoia start to turn, slow but inexorable.

One day a sombre person will knock on their door to demand their papers and to label them; ‘enemy aliens’ they are now, a threat to the war effort, to be contained on a remote island in the Irish Sea, windswept and rain-washed. Charles pleads for them, but he fails to convince. A suspicion has been raised and that is enough in such times. ‘What suspicion?’ Charles asks, outraged. And the boy looks on, half hidden behind a door, drowning in his guilt. Friedrich and Clara, true to the official secrets act, do not use their war work as a defence. In a last attempt, Charles asserts, with a commanding look at Clara, that she is his fiancée and should be allowed to stay with him, or if not that, that he should be allowed to accompany his wife-to-be to the internment camp. But Clara would not allow this, even had it been possible, even had it been true; she must stay with her brother and Charles must let them go.

What of the boy? Officialdom demands that he return to his mother, though now he begs to stay. Charles takes on the task of delivering him and they travel together to the capital, by train, bemused by the destruction they can see as they near their destination. They walk hand in hand down the terraced street looking for the right house, but there is no one there to greet them. A neighbour appears, and cries out in sympathy. ‘I’m so sorry, Georgie. Your mum’s gone, lad. She was caught out by the sirens. It was a doodlebug. I’m so sorry.’ A silence – like the silence Sally must have heard before it fell. When they enter the house, the boy is given a box of letters and a few bits and pieces – fragments to remember her by. So he will stay with Charles after all – orphaned entirely when his father’s ship is sunk out there in the dark sea.

And when war ends once more, after enduring internment and the grief of Friedrich’s death, Clara will return to Charles and George, who have made a kind of family. Charles and Clara will marry at last, quietly, in acknowledgement of his long love and her fond gratitude, which is hard to distinguish from love. Together they will still recall those distant days, and in spite of so much change and loss, their lives, their selves, will stretch to hold all this and more: sunlit youth, two wars, a lost brother, and a found, forgiven boy, George Frederick Brown, who will become Frederick Beresford, their only child.

***

So there are the bare bones of a story – or, not bones, rather, threadbare coats hanging on a few hooks of old papers and scant facts. It may seem to be a sad story. The lives that began an age ago did not run as hoped and planned. History forced them into awkward shapes. Is that why it seems sad? (Shall we indulge in a little philosophy for the sake of Charles and Friedrich and Clara and their youth?) Or is it just that our story followed them to their ends, and we see an end, of any life we have paid attention to, as sad, whatever happened in it?

We need warm flesh to fill out these musty clothes, to remind us of the rest, to remind us that the end of a life is only a fraction of the whole. So look again in the chest of photographs, dog-eared and faded. Here’s one: Clara, silhouetted against a sunny window, seated at a baby grand in her parents’ house, Friedrich beside her with his violin. They are playing something exquisite. It must be exquisite or how could you explain the exalted look that passes between them, of concentration and of shared intention? And here’s another, from a different time: a day trip to a place that might have been theirs, two figures seated in a punt, amused but regal, looking back at Charles, who poles them past mediaeval walls with pretend solemnity. And here’s another: white-haired Charles and Clara with a blurry baby, the proud grandparents…

***

‘Oh, that’s me!’ And Jane looks round at the pile of refugees from the attic. It includes a violin case, so light she had thought it empty. But she opens it now, and there, resting in dark blue velvet is Friedrich’s violin and in the little compartment for resin there’s a piece of paper, folded small. She opens it out carefully; its creases are worn and fragile. On one side there’s a concert programme, typed on an old machine (an Underwood?), for a performance by and for the internees. In between a tenor (Danny Boy, of course) and a pennywhistle, there they are: ‘Clara and Friedrich Muller – violin and piano, Fauré – Berceuse Op. 16’ (the accent added by some precise hand). On the back of the programme, in spidery black ink:

Man sagt, dass die Toten nicht wirklich tot sind, solange wir an sie erinnern…

People say that the dead are not truly dead, as long as we remember them. But how could that be? Something may be preserved, some trace, some effect of a life, but nothing remains of the self that lived it. For a conscious being, to be is not to be remembered, or to be perceived; to be is to perceive, to act, to feel, to remember. When such a being ends, their world ends, and all the things kept alive by their remembering (if such a thing were possible) end with it. But still we will remember, and do our best to keep the dead alive.

 

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

Story: Disillusionment

Well – I’m taking advantage of the long weekend (though as a self-employed person that concept doesn’t really apply) to add to the story pages. It is remarkable how proofreading a dull textbook can stimulate the desire to do something else – boredom is a great motivator. 😉

This is an illustration for one of the stories I’ve uploaded that hasn’t appeared as a post already:

 

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And here is an excerpt:

Mary found the letter at the bottom of the ‘dressing-up’ box, sticking out from the lining. The envelope was still drily stuck down but it seemed eager to open as she pulled it out. She knew she had no right to read it but she couldn’t resist.

 

[If you would like to read the rest of this story, click on the Short fiction link at the top of the blog.]

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

Metablog

Today I have added a page to this blog – a story which is too long for a regular post. It takes rather more than 30 seconds to read; printed out in the real world it is a 20 page short story. I thought about posting it in instalments but it seemed likely that if I did no one would ever read the whole thing in the intended order. (I am realising more and more how apt the rhyme of blogroll and bogroll is – bringing to mind an endless spool of ephemeral fragments disappearing as it unwinds into a virtual black hole, never to be seen again.)

As a beginner here, I am not sure how much difference the difference between page and post really is, but we will see.

About the story, ‘Truth and Consequences – a tragedy’: I am still in two (or more) minds about it. Perhaps because it draws more on other things I have read or seen, that is, on other people’s fictions, than on my own experience, I am afraid it is too ‘derivative’, unoriginal, clichéd. On the other hand, there are ideas and images in it that came to me quite unexpectedly and that feel original to me (or at least they took me by surprise, which is one of the reasons for writing in the first place, I think).

It is set in the 1970s (not only to avoid the problem of mobile phones and the contortions writers sometimes go through to explain why their characters can’t just phone for help or to resolve the crucial miscommunication of their plot), because the central issue has moved on since then and so I hope my characters’ ‘tragedy’ might not happen today. But there are parts of the world where it is very much still happening, so perhaps this story is not such a period piece.

Here is an excerpt:

Truth and Consequences – Prologue

 

A man on a bony bay gelding rides up the forest track, among dark spruce and flaming maple. Above him, the high faint calls of climbing buzzards speak of space and solitude. At a certain spot he slows and stops, as if by habit. He dismounts and unsaddles the horse. ‘You ready for this?’ He gives the horse a slap on its rump, and another, to send it back down the trail. Then, alone in the forest, he gazes around him, breathing in a great lungful of the resiny air. Delicately, he takes off from round his neck a small suede bag. Worn dark and soft with years of wear, it opens easily, tips out into his hand his shining good-luck piece. ‘I hope you’re waiting for me, Carlo,’ he says to the empty air. ‘I didn’t mean to take so long.’

 

[If you would like to read the rest of this story click on the Short fiction link at the top of the blog.]

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts