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?’

Beginnings and Endings – a short story

[re-post from my Short Fiction pages]

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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

 

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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:

 

Photo1499

 

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

Home Truths

It was one of the odder cases they’d had to deal with. None of the usual suspects or victims, low lifes living on the edge, addicts and bums. This was off their beaten track, in a pleasant apartment, among orderly folk. At first sight it looked like a minor domestic – not so unusual in any neighbourhood – but when injury led to death and the complicated story came to light, a stranger shape appeared.

 

Alex Giannini and Karl Svensson had been seconded to a different precinct for a while, to make up the numbers for a flu-ridden department, so they already felt unfamiliar with the upmarket area. To make it worse, their temporary boss had demanded that they ‘smarten up! You’re not in the ghetto now.’ Alex in particular found the buttoned up shirt and tie around his neck hard to get used to. He ran two fingers round his collar and then brushed his hand through his short, dark hair, to smooth its curls.

‘Stop fidgeting. You’re like a kid on his first day at school,’ said Karl.

‘Sorry, Mom.’ Alex laughed under his breath. ‘Thank god we don’t have to do this every day. Tell me again why they didn’t send a woman officer along?’

‘Because they’re all off sick of course, like half the squad. Let’s get it over with. After you.’

‘Thanks for nothing.’ Alex straightened his tie and his face before knocking on the door of the apartment.

 

The middle-aged woman who opened the door was disheveled and distressed. ‘What’s happened?’ she asked, even before they had time to show their ID.

‘Can we come in? It’s very bad news, I’m afraid.’ She let them into an airy living room, now littered with half empty coffee cups, discarded clothing and screwed up tissues.

‘Sit down,’ she said, making an effort to play the hostess.

‘You first,’ said Giannini, urging her to the only uncluttered chair. He crouched down in front of her, saying, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your husband died this morning.’

A wordless sound escaped her and then she pressed her hands to her mouth to hold it in.

‘And there’s more …’ Alex paused, frowning, and looked up at Karl for help.

‘What is it?’ She looked anxiously back and forth between them. What more could there be?

Karl told her the rest while Alex tried to provide some kind of comfort. ‘Because of the circumstances we have to take you in for questioning – the doctors have confirmed that his death resulted from the incident here last week. That means it has to be treated as a possible homicide.’

‘But he didn’t blame me! He said so – he wouldn’t…’

‘Yes, we know he didn’t press charges, but that doesn’t change the fact that his fall down the stairs happened while you and he were physically fighting. It’s not just between you and him anymore – it’s a matter for the law now, which means we have to ask you to come with us and make a statement about what happened.’ They thought they knew what her statement would amount to: self-defense against an abusive husband – a victim turning on her tormenter at last. They had seen it often enough and been amazed at how long some women would endure mistreatment, how they could still claim to love their abusers.

 

But this time they were wrong.

 

‘Can I see him first? At the hospital? Please?’

‘I guess so,’ said Alex. ‘There’d be no harm in that would there, Carlo?’

So they found themselves witnessing her farewell. The body was laid out in the chilly morgue, with little sign of the fatal injury beyond a bruise on the temple and a healing scratch on the cheek. She found his hand and held it tight, then bent to kiss him gently on the lips.

‘I’m so sorry, Jonathan,’ she whispered. ‘What a bloody mess we made of everything.’

After a few minutes, she laid his hand down on his chest and turned away, looking calmer than they’d seen her.

‘Shall we go then?’

 

Some time later in an interview room, they started the tape to record her statement:

 

‘We already know you and Jonathan had a serious argument last Thursday that led to him falling down the stairs and suffering the concussion that eventually killed him. What was the fight about?’

‘A lot of things. Where do you want me to start?’ She suddenly looked too tired for this and Alex had to remind himself that she was not just a bereaved wife but a possible murderer.

‘Why don’t you start by telling us what happened that day?’

‘I’d been to the doctor in the morning…’

‘What for?’

‘A pregnancy test – it was positive.’

‘Oh…’ Alex and Karl exchanged a glance – they were both surprised, she didn’t look like a woman expecting a first child. ‘Was that good news?’

‘For me, yes. For Jonathan, no.’

‘So were you arguing about that?’

‘You could say so – and some other stuff.’

She remembered the conversation vividly but it was too hard to repeat in this strange place to these young men who knew nothing about her life, however gentle they tried to be.

‘I’m really tired – do we have to do this now? I’m not going anywhere… and neither is Jonathan. Tomorrow I’ll tell you everything, from the very beginning, if need be.’

‘You’ll have to stay in custody tonight then. Are you sure about that?’

She nodded and they reluctantly agreed to wait until the next day to continue.

 

Over a beer that evening Alex and Karl mulled over the case. ‘What do you reckon? An affair – someone else’s baby? He finds out and goes crazy so she shoves him down the stairs to save her neck – and the kid’s.’

‘Maybe – but he seems to have been pretty forgiving in that case. No charges, went back home to kiss and make up.’

‘Maybe it’s kinda the other way round – she’s expecting someone else’s kid, she wants to leave but he won’t let her go. She thumps him but he plays the forgiveness card to hold on to her – or maybe threatens her: “if you leave me I’ll accuse you of assault and you’ll have the baby in prison” – lucky for her he keels over a few days later.’

‘That’s a nasty thought, Al. I thought you felt sorry for the woman.’

‘I do, I do – I’m just trying to treat it like a regular case. Let’s wait and see what she has to say in the morning.’

 

She looked at least as tired the next day but she sat up straight in the interview room and started to talk as soon as they set the tape rolling.

‘I’ve been thinking all night and I want to tell you the whole story – it might take a while.’ She composed herself, took a breath, and then began.

‘I met Jonathan when I was 18. He was lovely, a few years older than me, handsome and kind. I felt at home with him straight away. People were always saying we made the perfect couple. It was love at first sight, I guess – and we got married really soon. My mum and dad didn’t like that much. They thought I was too young, but they came round. They could see he was a good husband to me.’

She took a sip of water, then went on.

‘We’d been married for a couple of years when I got pregnant. Jonathan was a bit funny about it but I thought he was just nervous about becoming a dad, and he was really protective. Hovered over me like a mother hen. But the baby died before she was born – yeah I know it’s sad, but it’s a long time ago now. I had plenty of time to get over it…’ But she was crying as she spoke, apparently unaware of the tears.

‘We kept trying for another baby but it never happened, and so we kind of gave up on it and settled down to enjoy life together as best we could. And it was fine, better than fine, for a good few years.’

She paused and smiled a little. ‘You guys married?’

‘No, not yet,’ said Alex. ‘Still playing the field.’ He winked at Karl, who was leaning against the wall by the door, saying nothing.

‘It’s ok, you know, if you don’t screw it up like we did. … Anyway time passed and, you know, hormones mess you up. I began to think about the baby a lot and talked to Jon about adopting – I knew we’d never have one of our own…’

‘What did he say to that?’

‘He didn’t like the idea. It took a while, but eventually he told me why he was against it. He’d been adopted himself, when he was five, and it wasn’t good. He’d ended up in care until he was 16, and then thrown out into the world to fend for himself. I didn’t know why he hadn’t told me before, but I tried to understand. It was hard though and I still wanted a kid – we struggled then. We stopped talking, stopped being a proper couple I guess, anywhere outside of the bedroom. I never stopped loving him though, you know? But then I did the stupidest thing, the thing that makes it my fault too – I slept with another man – nothing serious. I told myself it was a harmless fling – other people do it all the time. But it made it even harder to face Jonathan… and then I found out I was pregnant.’

She stopped herself, looking up at them.

‘I’m pregnant! Still – how is that possible after all this?… I was so happy when the doctor said my test was positive – I convinced myself it was Jonathan’s even though…’

‘But Jonathan wasn’t so happy, you said.’

‘No – because he knew, you see, it couldn’t be his.’

‘How did he know? You thought it might be possible.’

‘Because after we lost the baby all that time ago he had a vasectomy. I didn’t know anything about it until last Thursday…he never told me – any of it – until then.’

‘Any of what?’

‘I really didn’t have any idea, you must believe me.’

‘Believe what? What did he tell you?’ She took a while to answer, looking down at her hands, which were clenched so tight they shook.

‘He was my brother.’ A long moment passed before she spoke again, but the rest came more easily.

‘I hadn’t even known I was adopted, you see. My parents never said anything – I was a baby when they took me and they thought I’d never need to know. Jonathan tracked me down – he was desperate for some kind of family. How could he know we’d fall in love?…and when we did he couldn’t give it up. He knew when the baby died it was his fault – so he made sure it couldn’t happen again. But I think it wore him down, the lie, such a huge lie. That’s what came between us, before I even knew.’

‘So… all this came out last week when you told him you were pregnant?’

‘Yes…it was like some kind of explosion – everything dragged out into the open all at once – he was furious about the baby, otherwise I don’t think he’d ever have let it out … and then I was crazy too, angry about everything, with my parents, and with him, mostly with him, for all the lies… and then we ran out of words to throw at each other and started …’ She stopped speaking, and looked down at her clenched fists, then slowly opened them and wiped her wet cheeks.

‘But it wasn’t just his lie, was it? – There was mine too, the one I was prepared to live by. This baby… if I could, I would have lied to all of us, to myself, to Jonathan, and this child, all its life, and pretended it was ours.’

 

They stopped the tape then. It felt like more than enough truth for one woman and her child to live with.

‘What do you think will happen with her?’ Alex asked Karl, later, as they were finishing up the paperwork for the day. ‘Will they call it accidental death and leave her alone?’

‘I hope so.’

‘All those lies…what a fucked up life.’

‘But he loved her, he did his best. Truth isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be – the lies were the only way they could be together.’

‘Does that make it ok? She was his sister!’ There was a twist of disgust on Alex’s face.

‘And she loved him, and she killed him, accident or no. I don’t know what’s ok… it’s not ours to say anyway, thank god…’ Karl said, leaning back from his typewriter.

‘You don’t think we’re being fooled, do you? It could be all a smoke screen. She didn’t have anything to say yesterday and now all this. She might have been up all night concocting it. And anyway it doesn’t really tell us any more about what happened that night … even if it’s all true…’

‘True? If it came to trial you know it’s not about what’s true, it’s about what’s provable, and with no other witnesses any defense lawyer worth his salt could sow a reasonable doubt in the jury’s minds…’

‘Don’t tell me you’re losing your faith in truth, justice and the American way…’ Alex said, drily. Karl raised a quick eyebrow at him, with a suppressed breath of ironic laughter.

‘Whatever, I think she’s for real – why bother to make up a tale like that? It gives her just as much of a potential motive as any of the things we came up with. But, did she tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? No – she only gave us the bare bones. And there’s more to a body than the skeleton … clothes can tell you more about a person than bare skin…Their lives were hung on a lie, but the rest, the flesh of it – might have been as real as anyone’s.’

‘Whoa, there, Carlo. I think we’d better get out of here before you decide to retire to a garret to write poetry.’ He stood up and stretched, then offered a hand to Karl, slumped low in his chair. ‘You look beat and I don’t want to think about this mess anymore – truths and lies and moral ambiguity. Give me a nice straightforward drug bust any day.’ Karl allowed himself to be hauled up from his chair, and rolled his stiff shoulders, while he waited for Al to tie up a shoe lace.

‘Time for a beer?’ asked Karl.

‘My thoughts exactly.’

 

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

Fragment

The old woman sits in the desert, quiet, still. You think she has not heard your question. Your lips are parted to ask it again, when she speaks. ‘“What do I know?” Why? What should I know?’ She pauses and you must wait. ‘Here is what I know: I am old. I am a woman. I am an old woman, sitting in the desert. That’s all.’ She smiles lightly and briefly meets your eye, then looks past you, out to the hazy distance. It has not rained here for ten years.

You search for another, a better question. ‘What brought you here?’ Another long pause before she answers. ‘Life… Death… Hope… Fear… A bus.’ She laughs to herself. ‘All your questions will have the same answers, my dear.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Life, death, hope, fear, a bus. Now be quiet and listen.’

‘What am I listening to?’ But she does not speak again. She shakes her head and touches her lumpy finger to her lips, then looks away. The sound of wind, ever-present, fills the silence.

After some unmeasured time the light has changed; the sun, near set, picks out every stone with long fingers. The woman leans forward, hands on knees, gradually unfolding herself, to stand, still bent, and walk slowly into her small cabin, its bright blue paint now faded and peeling to a dusky, dusty camouflage. Away in the shadow of the far hills, headlights briefly draw the line of a road and then disappear.

You sit, still waiting for understanding, as the stars appear and a faint dew forms, distilled from a distant sea.

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

The Patient Man – a short story

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He pulled the boat ashore on the small green island, dragging it up the gravelly beach into undergrowth and covering it so that it was invisible from the lake. It was many years since he had been there but nothing seemed to have changed. He made his way through the trees, up and over the crest of the island and down into a sheltered valley where a stone bothy emerged from the rowan trees. From the valley there was a narrow view to the seaward end of the loch. It was a perfect place to hide from the world and over the years it had been used by hermits and refugees, from wars and wives, looking for a quiet life. The loch was full of fish and its shores of rabbits and summer raspberries.

This new refugee had come a long way to find the place again, a place he had known once as a backdrop to youthful fantasies. Here he had been a hero: a knight, a brave, a pirate. Now he was none of those things, but it felt like home. He pulled open the warped door and looked in. There was a drift of dry leaves on the floor and a damp patch where the roof let in a shaft of pale sun. Better get that fixed, he thought. It was in better condition than he had expected though. It didn’t take long to sweep the floor with a bit of brushwood, which then served as kindling for a small fire to take off the edge of damp.

By the time the sun was setting he had settled himself and his few belongings comfortably into the bothy. He lay looking out towards the glowing western sky, and sleep rose up to claim his weariness.

He woke long after dawn from a profound and dreamless sleep. In spite of an inadequate bed, he felt more rested than he could remember; there would be no demands made of him today. He stretched luxuriously and walked down to the water’s edge, looking across the still surface of the loch and filling his lungs with cool air. Suddenly he laughed out loud. Stripping off his clothes, he plunged into the water and swam strongly away from the shore.

 

The locals soon became aware that someone was staying on the island. Rumours trickled along the narrow roads. Dour old men shook their heads and looked for reasons to disapprove. ‘Who is he? What’s he doing here?’ ‘Must be something odd there.’ ‘Probably hiding from the law.’ The lack of real information encouraged increasingly wild speculations. The only person who had actually spoken to him was the proprietor of the village post office. She kept what little knowledge she had to herself, maintaining her pose of professional confidentiality and enjoying the small sense of importance it conferred. But she knew that he was paying rent to the laird who owned the island, and he had collected several weighty parcels that had arrived at the post office, addressed to Jack Winter. He had a battered old car that lived by the jetty, but rarely went anywhere. He spoke little when he came into the post office and seemed content to remain a mysterious stranger. If he was aware of the speculation about his presence and his past, he showed no sign of it.

 

On the island, Jack spent the first few days rediscovering his little kingdom. It was nearly forty years since he had last been there, but he could still identify the great tree which had been his lookout post, and the rocky cove which his imagination had populated with one-legged sailors or wild children eating pemmican and squashed fly biscuits, depending on what book he was living in at the time. His family had found the place as an ideal summer holiday when he was very small and they came back year after year. It felt like a truer home than the suburban semi that was officially ‘home’. As Jack grew from toddler to adventurer he acquired a younger brother and sister, who followed him when they could, eagerly playing supporting roles in his exploits. He was their captain, and their defender and comforter when the adventures led to accidents or irate parents.

The last holiday had been the best. His siblings were old enough to be allowed out in the little rowing boat without a grown-up, and their adventures expanded into new realms. It was a glorious summer with long days of sun and everywhere seemed to welcome them. They stayed for an extra week – an unprecedented change of routine. Long after, Jack would remember that time as an unbelievable idyll – it remained a vision of freedom and escape which seemed to become more and more inaccessible as life wound itself around him.

 

They had gone ‘home’ and returned to the humdrumness of school and work. But then everything in Jack’s life had changed. One day he had slouched up the road from the bus stop, dragging his school bag along, with a gang of dishevelled schoolmates, and, going into his gate and round to the back door, had found his mother standing in the garden, a dead cigarette in one raised hand, the other arm folded tightly across her ribs, as if holding herself together. ‘Mum?’ She had turned to face him, and crumpled into childlike tears. ‘Oh Jack! What are we going to do? Your dad’s gone…’ And she had held on to him desperately, as if he was the grown-up who could make everything better.

He was only thirteen then but very quickly he grew into his new role. To his brother and sister it seemed completely natural that Jack would be in charge of things. His mother took his competence for granted too, and it allowed her to retreat further and further into her sadness. When his teachers asked how things were at home, he said ‘Fine,’ and they were impressed by this quiet boy’s maturity and dedication to his family. Options time came round and, to the music teacher’s regret, Jack chose ‘sensible’, vocational courses. He left school at sixteen and got an apprenticeship with an electrician, adding a little to his mother’s small income, while his brother and sister pursued their own ambitions.

In time they left home, escaping to universities in distant cities to study languages or history. Their lives expanded to encompass many friends and some lovers, eventually partners and children. But Jack was always there in the background, called upon when crises struck, when relationships foundered or jobs were lost. He was the one his sister came to when she miscarried an unplanned pregnancy, confused and distraught in her unexpected grief. He was the one his brother came to for advice about girls or money.

When his siblings eventually grew out of him, becoming wiser and finding permanent partners, their place in his life was taken by their own children. His nieces and nephews looked forward to visiting Grandma and Uncle Jack, where there would be patient indulgence and adventures in the woods.

Through all these years there was his mother, for whom he was a constant support. Her friends would say, ‘You’re so lucky to have Jack!’ She knew they were right and she tried to give something back in gratitude and love. Some of them thought, but didn’t say, ‘what a waste’, as they remembered the bright, singing child, and watched the grown man fading with the years, making them cups of tea and hanging his work clothes to dry in the back garden.

There were few lovers in Jack’s life and none that lasted long. They were attracted to this ‘strong silent type’, but he seemed too involved with his family for there to be room for another real relationship. They quickly realised he would not be able to put them at the centre of his life, however much he might have wished it. So they moved on. A few perceptive friends sensed a hidden inner world in his silences, a world that absorbed what was left of his energy and time.

That little left grew smaller as his mother aged. Her demands became more needy as her voice became vaguer. One day, he came home from work to find her sitting on the floor in the living room making a precarious tower with coal from the scuttle. She looked up and said, ‘Hello, daddy. Do you like the house I’ve built?’

The dementia diagnosis took some months to be confirmed, but her decline was swift. In her moments of lucidity Jack saw the loving and grateful mother he had cared for unquestioningly for years, but those moments became more fleeting and infrequent. He gave up his job to look after her full-time, and his world narrowed.

Visits from his nieces and nephews were rare now as they grew older and found grandma’s strangenesses hard to cope with. His brother and sister still came to the old house from time to time, but they felt more guilt than anything, faced with an altered mother and a brother who seemed to have given his life away, enabling them to live theirs.

Then one day, they both received a letter from Jack. ‘Mum doesn’t know me anymore. The social workers say she needs to go into a nursing home now, so that’s what’s going to happen. If you want to visit her you can. I’m selling the house. I’ll send you both your shares. I’m going away. Be well. Love, Jack’

 

Jack had been settled in on the island for a few months before anyone ventured into his domain. He was taking his now regular morning swim in the loch when he noticed a small figure spidering across the rocks at the far end of the island. He swam further out to avoid any meeting and only when the boy had disappeared around the headland did he return to the shore. The boy had noticed the swimmer but he was not inclined to make contact either. He was enjoying this exciting, almost empty, place and wanted to carry on as if it was his alone. For a while the two of them sustained this mutual pact of invisibility. Sometimes, when he caught a vanishing glimpse of the boy through trees, Jack felt that he was sharing the island with a ghost of his own youth.

The boy and his mother were staying in the village for the long summer holiday, and she had heard a few of the rumours about the stranger on the island. The post mistress had tapped the side of her nose and a man in the pub had warned her gloomily to keep an eye on her boy. She knew the power of gossip in a small community though, and took little notice. Peter had told her about the man who always kept his distance, so she just told the boy to be careful and to respect his privacy.

So things remained for a couple of weeks, the boy rowing out in his little inflatable and exploring the parts of the island furthest from the bothy and ‘the swimmer’s beach’, as he thought of it. Jack recognised and was grateful for the boy’s reticence. It was on a particularly dazzling evening that they broke this pattern. Jack had built a fire on the beach and was cooking sausages. The delicious smell drifted through the trees and Peter couldn’t resist. Jack had seen him already and had decided that it would do no harm to share the sausages if he approached. They sat quietly eating together, asking no questions, and when the food was all gone, Peter got up, said thanks, and went back to his boat to go home before the sun set.

A new pattern formed. They still mostly left each other to their own devices but every day or two Jack would find he had company for dinner. They would talk shyly, about the island and the things the boy found there, interesting rocks or beetles, or the birds who sailed overhead. Jack came to look forward to his visits, as a distraction from the work that occupied most of his time. It allowed him the distance he needed for ideas to settle in or to prove themselves worthless. Peter too looked forward to their meetings, for the food of course, but also for the company of this patient man. He had never known a grown-up who seemed to have so much time to listen to him without pushing in with questions about things that didn’t matter. It felt like talking to another boy sometimes, but a boy with no agenda of his own, just a calm and thoughtful person who would hear him out. Jack often seemed to understand Peter’s meaning before he did himself, and it gave Peter a sense of the worth of his own ideas that was new and thrilling. Peter was careful though, not to overstay his welcome. Sometimes he felt as if, in befriending this quiet man, he’d tamed a wild thing, a solitary creature that might leap away if he came too close. He didn’t tell his mother much about their conversations. He wanted to keep them to himself, aware perhaps that exposure can damage fragile things.

 

Towards the end of August a few days passed with no visit from Peter. Jack wondered if he had gone home, but when he went ashore to get supplies and pay his rent the post mistress was full of the news that that boy Peter had fallen out of a tall tree and was in hospital. Amazing, he’d only broken his leg! Lucky beggar. Jack said nothing but took note, and decided a trip to town would not be unreasonable. It was a bit of a struggle getting the old car started, but in a couple of hours he was looking for a parking space at the hospital.

A little later he had nearly given up on seeing Peter. The hospital staff were adamant that random strangers would not be allowed in to see children. As he was slowly heading back to the car park though, a voice came from behind him, ‘Are you Jack?’ He turned round to see who had called his name. It was a woman, looking a little flustered, but smiling. He acknowledged his name and said, ‘You must be Peter’s mother? How is he?’

‘He’ll be fine, stupid boy. Just a greenstick fracture and a cast for a few weeks. Cunning timing – he’s supposed to go back to school next week.’ She grinned with relief. ‘Come and say hello. He’d like that.’

 

‘So you climbed a tree…?’

‘Yes! It was great! I could see for miles. And I got almost all the way back down before I slipped.’

‘Good,’ Jack smiled.

‘Can we come back again next year, Mum?’

‘We’ll see…’

‘Aww, Mum!’

‘We’ll see! But I can’t see why not right now – as long as you promise not to fall out of any more trees.’

‘You could stay on the island if…’ Jack said, surprising himself.

‘Oh yes, Mum! Can we?’

 

When Peter and his mum arrived at the beginning of the next summer holidays things on the island had changed somewhat. The money from the sale of the house had come through and Jack had bought the bothy and extended it a little, installing a small wind turbine. The prevailing westerlies supplied enough power for his minimal needs. He still lived in almost preindustrial simplicity except for a couple of pieces of 21st century electronics, which had aroused great curiosity at the post office when they were delivered.

Peter was a bit disappointed at these changes but cheered up when he was reassured that he would still be sleeping under canvas, not in the enlarged bothy. They pitched the two one-man tents out of sight of the bothy so that he could pretend to be an intrepid explorer far from civilisation, at least some of the time. And so began the summer that for Peter would be his own dreamtime, a store of shining images he would preserve in memory all his life.

The three of them soon fell into a kind of slow, wide dance, coming and going in their separate orbits, joining hands at meals by the evening fire. They were all three inclined to solitariness, valuing their own space and time, but to be able to leaven that solitude with undemanding company was a pleasure too. And gradually they let each other into their private worlds, sharing bits of the past in rambling conversations through the long northern dusk.

Kate told Jack of her family, of her mother, who had so absorbed herself into her love of her husband that, on his death, her will had run out like sand in an hourglass and she had survived him by only three months. This had stood as a warning for Kate, and when she found herself expecting a child she had had no desire to bond herself to its father. He was a footloose, feckless friend, and she only occasionally felt a sliver of guilt that he did not know he was a father. Peter grew up as happy as any of his friends, secure in her love, and protected from the traumas of family collapse that fell upon some among his schoolmates.

And when Kate saw her son with this solid man, she felt herself vindicated. In Jack he found a playmate, older brother, wise uncle all in one. I was right, she thought. Peter’s father could never have given him all that. She watched Jack’s agile hands as he taught Peter to tie interesting knots with curious names, and listened to the music of their quiet, absorbed conversations, Jack’s resonant voice a low undercurrent to Peter’s light wandering descant.

Jack let Kate in more slowly. She learned a little of his family, and his care of them, and wondered how he had stayed so strong for them all. One evening she asked, ‘What kept you going? I couldn’t have done that, all alone.’

He looked up from the little fire, its flames sparking in his eyes and said, ‘Music.’

‘Oh!’ She was taken by surprise – he seemed to live as close to silence as he could. ‘But now…?’ She looked around them as if to say, where is the music here?

‘Come.’ He stood up and walked to the bothy, knowing she would follow. In the new room at the back, which had been out of bounds to her and Peter, he showed her where the music lived: a keyboard with headphones plugged into it, a guitar and a pc, as well as shelves piled with manuscript paper. Handwritten scores were pinned to the walls, scribbled on and rewritten till some were almost illegible.

‘It’s much easier now that I’ve got the equipment,’ he said.

Kate watched him as he looked around at his own work. She could almost see him beginning to be sucked into it, and she knew she must not ask any more. He wasn’t ready yet.

The summer days drifted by, and now Jack sometimes unplugged his headphones so they could hear bits of melody through the trees. In the evenings by the fire he might play and sing a little, old songs, not his own, but in a voice as strong and many-stranded as twisted rope, as strong as the muscles that moved in his arms as he played.

 

And in the glimmering dark of a short northern night, when she first came to his bed, it was a meeting of minds and bodies, a grace, a benediction.

 

Their lives from then on formed a cycle of distance and intimacy. Kate’s colleagues in the staff room teased her about the mystery man of her summers. The locals around the loch forgot their speculations and Jack was just the island man with his summer wife. He went away from time to time for brief visits with Kate or to see a publisher in the city, but always returned gladly to his private realm, to morning swims and sunsets filled with silence.

 

A few years later, his brother and sister, who had never managed to track him down (perhaps they had not tried too hard), received invitations to the premiere performance of a new work, Island Songs, by a hitherto unknown composer, Jack Winter. They were amazed when they walked into the foyer of the concert hall to see him standing, tall and quiet as ever, beside a handsome woman and an excited teenage boy. And his joyful smile when he caught sight of them took away all their guilt.

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

The long walkers

A very short story:

None of them knew how long they had been walkers. Once there had been a librarian who walked with them, pushing his rickety handcart, full of its accumulation of little books called ‘diaries’, ‘calendars’, knotted string and notched sticks, piled on top of the even older volumes saved from the time before. He had tried so hard to keep a record of the days, by whatever means available, as the world changed.

He would read to them in the long evenings, myths and stories, songs and incantations, random fragments from their past. They called out for their favourites – ‘we want Riddles in the Dark, we want St Crispin’s Day! We want Closing-down sale.’ They liked the rhythms of the orphaned words, whose faded, floating meanings evoked long lost magics: ‘refrigerator’, ‘television’, ‘discount’, ‘door’.

They had buried him in the end, along with his cart, as it was ‘not to be removed from Sainsbury’s’.* And no one else could see the point of dragging the awkward thing around, full of useless objects. They had left the once-smooth roads long since, as the tarmac turned to potholes and the places the roads took them were emptied of scavenge-able stuff or disappeared under rising waters.

They marked the grave with a cairn and carved his symbol on an ancient tree nearby. They thought he would have wanted that. A song was written to remember Sainsbury and his place. Those were the best-kept records now, songs and skills, repeated, stored in minds and bodies, in rituals. But even they could be corrupted, and Sainsbury’s song named no place they could find again, if they had wanted to. Ancient trees will fall, with wind and winters; cairns subside.

The brief span of linear time was ended, that age of progress, of permanent change, of growth and destruction, of borders and wars, of history. The world returned to its eternal circling, summers come and go and come again, nothing new under the sun. The walkers wandered, passing and re-passing. Sometimes Sainsbury’s song was sung, and for a while the librarian walked with them again.

Image

*For international readers, Sainsbury’s is a British supermarket chain.

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts