Chemical Flight

In the old days, it would seem – though of course nothing on EduChannel is to be consumed without a pinch of salt – there were many ways in which a person could exit the life biological. Only the other day I was reading of a woman in mediaeval “times” who, finding herself without food or income, threw herself from a high cliff. Such places were popular. Star-crossed lovers jumped to their death, entwined in each other’s arms: romantic, and nowadays quite impossible. Our integrated bio-sensors do not give us that choice.

In the old days, so they say, there was something called the French Foreign Legion. Young men with broken hearts would run away to join this military band, and a combination of fierce discipline and the harshest of desert suns would cauterise their memories of Daisy, or Pearl, or whoever.

Once upon a time, so they say, a person unable to stomach his or her existence – cruel past, poor education, lack of opportunity – could ‘escape’ after a fashion by injecting themselves with the most unbelievably primitive and fatally addictive drugs such as heroin, or by consuming large quantities of liquids collectively known as ‘alcohol’, which would eventually destroy the liver. Nowadays, of course, even if these ‘alcohol’ substances could be accessed, a liver would not permit itself to be compromised.

A person in prison could starve themselves to death, though force-feeding was sometimes employed by the authorities to counteract this. A person could throw themselves in front of a mode of transport known as a ‘train’, or drive something known as a ‘car’ at 100 mph with their eyes tightly shut, in a thunderstorm. A person could brandish a gun in a public space, or brandish a Samurai sword at a police officer, with the clear expectation of being gunned down. ‘Death by cop’, that was called.

So many appalling choices, but now only one: chemical flight (ChemFli).

ChemFli, as most of you will know, was a by-product of the Time Race of Cen22. Difficult to credit it now, but in that region of the time ‘experience’ scientists assumed that time was linear, as experienced by that most deceptive of organs, the human brain. People actually thought in term of Past, Present and Future. They assumed that if only the right craft could be invented – a “time machine” – H G Wells wrote a novella (a smallish-sized fictional offering) on this subject in late Cen19 – such a contraption could ‘take them back’ to earlier times or even ‘take them forward’ to times which had not yet occurred. Of interest also might be series of films collectively entitled Back to the Future in which a mad professor type drives a car-transport ‘backwards’ in time from 1985 to 1955, and subsequently ‘forward’ into the ‘future’.

A prototype of such a machine was eventually developed by the IndoChinese Alliance in early Cen22. The world held its breath as scientists attempted to launch it into a figure-of-eight test orbit – from the Present ‘out’ to the Past, back through the Present, ‘out’ into the Future and to the Present again. Thankfully the flight was unmanned: it is now known that any living creature on board would have been mentally ‘scrambled’ by the experience. Instead, the craft was packed with the most up-to-date technology designed to register exactly where – or ‘when’ the craft disappeared to.

What happened was – apparently – nothing. The machine made a lot of noise, but – apparently – remained on the launch pad. However, the project was by no means the disaster it first seemed. Much data had been recorded during the ‘flight’. This data, when analysed – a task which in itself took several years – demonstrated that Past, Present and Future were all happening at once, ie that ‘time’ was in fact a particle – a single point which, from certain points of view – notably that of the human brain – would appear to be a wave. This discovery was to have long-term and unexpected consequences.

For some humans the need for escape from the horrors or constraints of their physical existence remains as strong as ever. But all means of escape have now been closed off, apart from one: ChemFli. Instead of technology we now have a simple drug, based upon, but not identical to, what was once known as psilocybin or ‘magic mushroom’: Cybin7.

Having made the choice, and signed his consent, the subject permits himself to be injected with a carefully calibrated dose of Cybin7. Care must indeed be taken: a fraction too much will result in physical death, a fraction too little in madness. The subject’s body is then retained in stasis whilst he – or she – is freed from it, and from the unbearable present moment. He – or she – finds themselves able to move, as it were ‘sideways’ in time, in any direction, experiencing what would once have been thought of as Past or Future, or even, occasionally, both at once. However, he can never return to ‘now’; and he cannot control where – or rather ‘when’ he travels. He has become a cork bobbing on an ocean, a particle of dust in the air, forever the gypsy in ‘time’.

Some of you may be aware that I have a personal interest in this subject, since my own son chose to avoid a life sentence for murder by signing up to the ChemFli programme. The thing was done before I knew it.

I can follow his ‘visuals’ of course – flashes of experience, faces he sees, views – sometimes. I viewed an execution through his eyes once – a knife-like device released from a great height. These fragments of witness – from my son and thousands of other ChemFli volunteers – have proven invaluable to historians. They use them to piece together a new ‘history’ and predict our communal ‘future’.

For me it is different. I simply miss him.

(Flash fiction: 969 words)

Becalmed

It doesn’t flash, it drifts, whatever they say.

Images came to him, one after another. Lying on his back, he let them do what they would. They seemed in no particular hurry to play themselves out.

Sometimes he looked up at the sky, which was a livid purple, with streaks of orange. Back home, or down home, such a sky would have meant a cold wind, distant thunder, rain on the way. He would have been shivering. But here it was pleasantly warm. This was not home. He counted the many-sized moons and noted their by now all-too familiar arrangement in this all-too familiar sky.

That would be his first request. To lie once more beneath a blue sky and watch white, summer clouds drifting over the shallow hills and valleys of his boyhood: blue and white and green. He had made daisy chains, but out of buttercups. The stems of buttercups were different from the stems of daisies. They had little corners and angles to them. The juice got under your fingernails as you split the stems: blackish-green.

And then there was the time by the river. He had been sitting on the bank, high up, looking down, and a girl was playing in the water. His parents were there too, but taking no notice. The girl wore a black one-piece, slick with water. She was swimming with the green weed as the current pulled downstream. Her hair drifted downstream too. She was beautiful, but he was just the wrong side of puberty to know how or why he knew.

At Brixham, his aunt and uncle had taken him out in a shallow tourist boat, with a glass bottom to it. The water was so clear, you could see the rocks and the fish. It was like Australia, he had thought at the time. Like looking down at a coral reef, except not like that.

He had lost count of the days since he and the metal wreckage came down in this corner of a foreign ocean. There might be land. He might come to land. There might be creatures. To begin with he had hoped for that. Now he saw how he might look through their eyes – a whiteish sea-worm adrift in a puffy orange flower; some slug unaccountably tumbled from the sky. Maybe they would eat him. More likely they would dissect him. Work out how he worked, what structure might hold him together. Or maybe they were not there. Maybe there was no land, and nobody.

He looked up at the purple sky one final time.

With an effort he rolled himself over, surrendering to the dayglo embrace of an alien sea.

(flash fiction: 446 words)

 

Oddly, this little story was inspired by Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Adlestrop’. His railway journey, with its brief stop at Adlestrop, took place in 1914. Nothing, and yet everything, happens in the poem. Although there is no mention of war, it is generally thought of as a war poem in that is is a longing for a lost and quieter time.

Mary’s Folly

When Martha had the second stroke, Mary knew her folly-building days were over for the foreseeable future. The stroke robbed Martha of her speech and put her in a wheelchair. It was a disaster, because of the garden.

Their parents died within a year of each other, the one of dementia the other of a stroke, and the sisters had lived together ever since. Strokes seemed to run in the family. Martha was the eldest by three years. For reasons different but not discussed, neither had ever married. The arrangement suited them both, though Martha found Mary aggravatingly airy-fairy and Mary found Martha somewhat rigid and overbearing.

This difference was reflected in the garden, which they both loved. It was a huge garden, by modern standards, the sort that would nowadays have a five bedroom mansion somewhere in the middle of it, rather than a two-bedroom bungalow giving onto the street.

Martha was in charge of most of it. Mary had the bit at the back, where the garden path wandered through the damson hedge. The damsons made a nice screen, to Mary’s way of thinking; out of sight, out of mind. Here she could work on her folly, whilst Martha manicured the lawn, pruned the trees overhanging the fish-pond and weeded around the rose-bushes, expansive and military. Martha needed that order.

What Mary needed was to climb up her stepladder and glue on broken china and other bits and pieces – an old clay pipe, a blue scent bottle, a discarded medal with the Angel of Mons on it, charred in some long-ago bonfire. If anything like this turned up in the garden Martha it put by for her, in a shoe box in the greenhouse, although she never admitted to any ‘putting by’. Mary’s folly was the height of – foolishness and Martha ought to be discouraging it. Nevertheless, she saved things.

Mary would make herself available to act as gardener’s assistant if, for example, Martha wanted to prune the apple tree or dig out a new flower bed. Martha did not make many such requests, for Mary was a dilatory worker, prone to day-dreaming, and as soon as she was dismissed, she would slope back through the damson hedge.

After the stroke, there could be no more sloping. Martha sat about, a blanket over her knees if it was chilly, issuing instructions. It was difficult. Her speech was impaired but Mary was good at working out what she meant and, without exactly appearing to do so, acted as interpreter when they had visitors. And in spite of her dilatoriness and inefficiency, Mary did seem to be managing Martha’s ‘half’ of the garden quite well. She must have picked up more knowledge whilst acting as gardener’s assistant than either of them realised.

It took up all of her time, but she had anticipated that. The lawn remained mown, if not manicured. The apple-tree remained pruned, though she had had to ask a nephew to help her with the heavier branches. The roses, though not up to Martha’s standard, remained alive and pleasant-scented. Mary even planted a couple of new ones, to fill in gaps, and planted underneath them with hardy geraniums: a living mulch, according the man at the garden centre.

The day of Martha’s funeral dawned cold and rainy. It was what you would expect of early February. Mary put on a thermal vest under the black suit she had had to buy for the occasion. She wrapped a thick scarf around her neck, only wishing that a woolly hat had been appropriate. As the coffin clunked its way in through the silk curtains they played something by Bach, about sheep. Martha had apparently liked it. She had left a list of such details with her will. She had left Mary her half of the bungalow, as expected, and the contents of her deposit account: more than expected; the interest would cover the cost of a professional gardener once or twice a month.

After the funeral, whilst friends and family consumed sandwiches, tea and cakes upstairs in a hired venue, Mary slipped away. They might wonder where she was, but probably wouldn’t care over much.

It felt too dank for wandering up and down the High Street so she ducked into the tea-shop and had a coffee on her own: a little time to think. There was a charity shop across the way. She made a start there, coming out with a stack of mismatched saucers and an imitation Clarice Cliff teapot. She loved Clarice Cliff, and fake was just as good. In another shop she found a tiny, broken doll; in yet another, an ashtray with pink and blue flowers and ‘Gran Canaria’ painted in wobbly black lettering. The first shop had given her a bag-for-life, but after an hour or so it started getting heavy. Time to go home, where hammer and glue awaited her.

Spring was just around the corner.

(flash fiction: 833 words)

Featured image: Clarice Cliff Crocus Tea-set, 1931

A Day At The Seaside

It was a Monday morning and, since he was travelling the wrong way, he more or less had the carriage to himself. Somebody had abandoned a magazine. He flipped through the pages as the train clacked and jolted through the suburbs, scanning images of celebrities he’d never heard of; women with pink sausages for lips, men with broad shoulders, flat stomachs and daft little beards displaying themselves in their spotless mansions, along with their furniture, their chandeliers, their works of art and their glossy, unread books. He was longing for life to be grey, or sepia.

The sun glinted off something jammed down the divide between his seat and the next. It might just be a coin, of large enough denomination to buy himself a mug a tea when he arrived. He pictured himself in a seafront café, a steaming white china mug in front of him, the teabag string still dangling, he noticed. There appeared to be a red plastic tablecloth, a bottle of vinegar, a salt cellar and a dog-eared menu. He sensed a plate of fish and chips on the way and his mouth started watering at the thought of it.

But it wasn’t a coin, it was a mirror. The glass was filthy, as you might expect from something pushed between seats for a long time. It was the sort of thing a child would be drawn to: thick pinkish plastic round the edge and purple flower design, probably part of a set – the kind of tat down-at-heel grannies picked up in the Cheap Shop for birthday gifts and stocking-fillers.

He smeared it clean with his sleeve and, since no one was watching, glanced down at his reflection. He fully expected to see an old guy who hadn’t been bothering to cook much recently, a trifle emaciated, greyish stubble; expected also that death-by-boredom look in his eyes, that one-final-fling desperation, that nobody’s-going-to-talk-to-me expression.

Instead of that he saw a girl in a blue cotton dress with a band of complicated white embroidery across the bodice. It had those small puff sleeves with cuffs, like kids wore in the fifties. In fact her whole face was somehow antiquated – that fair, slightly greasy hair drawn up in a topknot and tied with a gingham ribbon, half-slipping down. She didn’t look at all like a kid might look like today. Was she was gazing at her own reflection, or back out at him? He ventured a smile. She smiled back, but whether she thought she was smiling at herself or back at him, he couldn’t tell.

He knew, of course, that vampires did not reflect in mirrors, and it would have surprised him less, somehow, if he’d been turned into one of those; but he’d never heard of an old man acquiring the reflection of a child, of the opposite gender and from way back in the past. If he’d been a character in one of his own crappy novels he’d no doubt have gasped, dropped the mirror, wrenched open the carriage door and jumped, breaking his neck in the process. His ghost stories or, as they called them nowadays, Supernatural Tales – didn’t sell well. Maybe he’d turn today into a story, if and when today was over.

The carriage had also changed. Above the seats were stylised, panoramic posters advertising Brighton. Pointy-breasted women in swirly skirts and woollen twinsets trailed little girls much like the one in the mirror; buckets and spades, bottles of pop, frilly sunshades – all so smug and wholesome. Everything was all right in their world.

Countryside flowed past, greener and less spoiled than it should have been. Steam clouded the windows in fits and starts. Of course, steam. Trains made a different sound in those/these days. He looked down at the unfamiliar body inside the blue dress, both of which he now somehow inhabited. He – no, she – had no breasts, which meant she would be nine or ten years old. There was a pocket in the side of dress. He/she slid the mirror into this. There was a button, and a buttonhole. He/she fastened the button carefully, and checked it. If it the mirror got lost, there might be no way back? There might be no way back in any case. He rather hoped not.

They could feel the sun on their arm through the window-glass. The window was open a crack at the top, and the smell the sea came through it –seaweed and salt from long ago. Up in the luggage rack – a string hammock – was a tin bucket shaped like a castle, with towers, and a red tin spade with a wooden handle. They would build a sandcastle, they thought. Warm sea-water would trickle between their toes. They would have fish and chips and penny cornets.

The sky would be blue all day.

(flash fiction: 805 words)

Twelfth Night

Soon after she left us, it began to snow. From now on my life would be all snow, and all falling. My husband cleared our driveway then dug a diagonal path across the lawn, starting at the back door and ending at his shed. The snow didn’t ease or stop as it normally would have; it crept up the glass in our patio doors; it piled up on our windowsills; icicles oozed down from the guttering.

It had been so very dark inside our house, and for so long. Twelfth night: the sixth of January, the day people in other houses would be taking down their decorations.

I had not crossed the threshold since it happened. I was frozen already: why would I want to be colder? But Twelfth Night made me realise I must. I couldn’t spend the rest of my days indoors. My maiden voyage would be this: I would exit by the back door, navigate the icy patio, cross the lawn diagonally via my husband’s snow-path, stand outside his shed for a minute then come back.

I wrapped my scarf around my face, covering my nose. Birds’ feet patterned the snow. What does it feel like to weigh so little? When – or if – Jesus walked on water, did he feel like one of God’s beloved sparrows, hopping about on snow?

The snow my husband shovelled aside this morning was already in the process freezing, forming a rough wall at the level of my elbows. Fresh snow was already settling on the cleared path between the walls, so I made footsteps.

Then I saw it – a small, honey-coloured arm poking out of the broken snow. In his narrow focus on the task in hand my husband must have overlooked it. He is a different man nowadays: something has been subtracted from us both.

There was no hand to grasp, only a familiar, frayed, mended, frayed-again paw. I eased the body out of the snow with care, afraid that the arm would sever itself in my hands. Touching it took me back. I was sitting by a lilac bush in my mother-in-law’s garden, with a needle and strong thread, an off-cut of yellow felt pinned to the thinning fur fabric. How warm it had been that day and how rich the scent of the lilac. Jessica must have been there that day, but somehow I couldn’t see her.

The bear had never had a name. He was just Bear. Did he know his owner had gone away? Could a stuffed bear sense that sort of thing? I stowed him inside my coat while I completed my journey to the shed. I held him close to my breast as I waited the minute or two I had promised myself to wait. We took a few quiet breaths together before setting off back to the kitchen. When I took off my coat, the jumper I wore beneath it was soaked and icy.

I washed him in soapy water, rinsed him in plain but warm. I wrapped him in a towel as if he were a child, folding the cloth carefully around his threadbare neck to keep out the draught.

I sat him in her little chair by the kitchen range.

I gave the chair a bit of a push, and it rocked as it used to do.

I sat down and cried and cried.

When he dried out, I wrapped him in a patchwork shawl and hid him in her room. I sat him on the bed with her favourite picture book. Sometimes, for variety, I propped him up in the window seat so that he could look out at the garden. Every now and then I would sit beside him, and together we watched the patterns black branches made against a grey sky. Sometimes he sat on my lap, while I knitted him a scarf. Jessica had liked pink, so I knitted her bear’s new scarf in many shades of pink.

Together we sat and waited for the spring.

(flash fiction: 671 words)

The Bag Lady

Pete scanned the atrium for a vacant seat. The hospital had recently invested in wider, squashier, blue ones: more comfortable. He had an hour to wait before the host-human’s annual physical; time to slow, then stop his second and third hearts. Human physiology has a certain lag to it. Best to adjust with caution rather than lose consciousness and have someone groping around with a stethoscope before one was ready.

The next thing he did was a mistake. He sat down next to a bag lady – a female human who either chose not to wash or lacked the opportunity to, and therefore stank to high heaven. She was old and obese, wearing layer upon layer of clothing, including a frayed, overlarge woollen item. Elastic bands above her wrists kept the garment from dangling over her hands. As he watched, she lifted her skirt to scratch her knee. It was grossly swollen.

“I saw a doctor about it,” she said. “He didn’t do nothing.”

Too late, Pete realised he had allowed her a conversational opening. The smell coming from her would have been rank, even to a genuine human. To Pete, whose olfactory nerves were ten or twelve times more efficient, it was unbearable. He switched focus from heart-slowing to the gag reflex, suppressing it, fast

“I was nanny to the stars, you know,” the old woman confided. All them Carry On chaps – I nursed all their kids…!

Force of habit, Pete accessed the supplementary database lodged just behind his pituitary gland. The names she was continuing to reel off were those of once-famous British stars but one of them, at least, had been gay. No record of progeny. If she was lying about him she was probably lying – or deluded – about all the rest. Not that it mattered. He was still sat next to her, with no alternative seating, and she was obviously planning to run through every single star of sixties comedy and tell him how affectionate they had felt towards her and how much they had admired her childcare technique. The next worst thing to a human stinker is a human bore.

“I see things,” she said, suddenly, half an hour later. He would have suppressed his hearing, but he would need it to hear his name called by the Receptionist.

“Yes?” Why had he said yes? A single word was encouragement to a human bore.

“Shall I tell you one of my visions?”

No, he thought. “What sort of visions?” his treacherous human host-mind was asking.

She leant in towards him. He suppressed the give-away nose-wrinkle of disgust. “I seed the world ending.”

“When?”

“In exactly three days and fifty-four minutes. We’ll all be blown to smithereens, my dearie.” Something about the way she said it alerted something in the alien part of his brain.

“Where did you see it?”

“In a dream, dearie.”

“But aren’t you frightened?”

“No,” she said. Something like sanity crept into her eyes. “If you were me, would you be averse to dying?”

Out of curiosity, he accessed his database again, instructing it to run on ‘future’ rather than ‘past’. To his horror, the human brain showed him image after image of fire and destruction. He saw buildings falling and people screaming, in their millions. Now that he had directed his attention to it he clearly felt the build up of forces deep within the earth’s crust.

He supposed, if he had been an actor in one of those films of the sixties – the sci-fi kind where asteroids headed towards the planet, monsters rose from the deep or killer vegetation took root and started to chomp their way through the population – he would at this point have been deciding to call the Prime Minister, or even standing up in this crowded atrium and shouting “You’re all about to die, and there’s nowhere for you to go. Your race, backward as yet, possesses neither star-ships nor space-charts, and even if you did you lack the ability to comprehend disaster and act fast enough to evacuate.

The bag lady was asleep, having slid down her blue plastic chair. The fat, grubby arms on the wooden rests were the only thing that stopped her from landing on the floor. An ancient mobile phone fell out of her pocket and landed on the floor between her feet with a clatter, cracking the glass. Human politeness dictated that he should pick it up and hand it to her, germs and all.

Instead, he reactivated both his supplementary hearts, diverted power to his ante-pituitary database, magnified power to paltry human muscle-tissue. His craft was concealed 25.7 miles from here, in an old factory on waste ground. He had a car, in the hospital car park, but he would leave it where it was.

It would be quicker, now, to run.

The Lion and Saint Jerome

If you prefer, you can imagine me in a darkly-panelled study. Imagine it similar to that which, many centuries later, will be engraved by a certain long-haired German artist. Here I am then, in my study amongst my books. As usual I am shown with a long beard, a quill pen and a ledger. This is because I lived to be old, and wrote a lot.

The German engraver has not included my eyeglasses. In the latter years of mortal existence my eyesight became very bad. After dusk I was unable to make out the letters in Greek manuscripts, even with the help of a candle. It greatly hampered my studies.

A skull gathers dust in the window-seat. This is what they used to call a memento mori, to remind us that life is short and we have only a limited time to earn our place in heaven. It is also meant to remind you that I have become very wise in my old age. Angels, apparently, whisper divine truths into my ear.

Closest to you, viewers, is my lion. He does not sleep but lies relaxed on the wooden boards, luxuriously extended within swiping distance of a plump German corgi. What a tasty snack that dog would have made for my lion, in the old days.

The artist is gifted but cannot, I think, have had a real lion in front of him as he worked. Before lions were available to view, in zoos and such, artists seemed to imagine them the size of extra-large dogs. In real life, my lion was an impressive sight indeed. He was taller than me when standing on his hind legs, and could have ripped me apart in seconds. I am eternally grateful that he chose to love me instead.

The musculature and the claws are excellent and the tail, if not quite accurate, is at least decorative. But he is too small, as I have said, and this Dürer fellow has given him the face of a domestic cat; those charming, bristled whiskers, those Siamese eyes. The ears appear to belong to another creature entirely – a bear, perhaps, or even a mouse’s, scaled up. And the creature is smiling to himself. Neither cat nor lion would be likely to do so, but we can allow him a degree of artistic licence.

They say I removed a thorn from my lion’s paw, and in fact I did. It was a very long time ago, when I lived in a monastery. He was limping badly, and made straight for me, as if he had been sent. The others ran away, in any case. He sat before me and lifted his paw, that I might inspect it. I fetched water and cloths and cleaned the wound, and then could see the great thorn he had in it. So great was it in size that I could grasp it firmly between finger and thumb, without resort to an implement.

“This will hurt, my Brother,” I said, looking straight into his eyes. He put his head on one side and gazed straight back into mine. I gave the thorn a quick, sharp tug and out it came in a gush of blood and infected matter. Afterwards I applied the same healing herbs as I would have used for my monastic brothers, binding them into a paste with spiders’ webs and wild honey. My lion sat patiently as I bound up that giant paw with linen strips.

How, what shall I say happened between me and the lion? From my vantage point I can see both past and future, and I know that my lion has become a kind of fairy-story. They say he was attached to me by mistake, centuries later. They claimed that my lion was but a fable for the entertainment of credulous pilgrims to Bethlehem, where I left behind the mortal shell that was Jerome or, as others called me, Hieronymus.

You may believe what you like. My lion died of old age some years before me. He and I are back where we began, in the All and the Everything. We are one, my lion and I. You may sense us around you; within, enfolding and permeating you. We lift up our paws to you in supplication. We rest our golden heads upon your frail human shoulders.

We purr, and yes, we smile.

durer 4