The House by the Sea
Peter tells me it’s a foolish thing to do but there’s nothing I like more than to walk as far as I can across the sands at low tide. I tell him I don’t have a death wish so I don’t do it lightly. On the contrary, I do it because it makes me feel intensely alive and l pay obsessive attention to the tide tables. What I don’t tell him (he gets impatient when I talk in what he thinks is a fanciful way) is that it satisfies my inner astronaut: the part of me that dreams of stepping out of a spacecraft onto the surface of another planet. Out on the sands it can feel like that: all the Earth’s surface coverings that are familiar to me -tarmac, concrete, grass, vegetation and so on- are stripped away, exposing an older, alien place. The world as I know it is reduced to a thin, dark strip on the horizon. It might as well not exist. As I said, I don’t tell him any of this. Peter mistrusts that kind of thinking. He thinks with his hands.
He always was like that. As a child he made few friends, if any. He preferred, at first, to play with his bricks. If anyone ever asked him if he wanted anything, the answer was always more bricks. Later, he made things: he pored over construction sets and built model aeroplanes. He grew into a young man of few words and rigid routines. Then he began making things out of wood. Since then, everything he makes is made out of wood.
Part of me is pleased to have him around still. A large part of me: when you are as old as I am it feels good to have young people around. At least it does to me. Another feels he should have moved on, gone off to find his own way in the world. The trouble is, the world’s ways are not his ways. He makes anything he thinks we need: chairs, spoons, chessmen, even, once, a staircase. We’ve talked about starting a business – finding ways to sell the things he makes. He’s talking of building a rowing boat. After all, we do live by the sea, he said. We have an arrangement, for now: he makes what we need, I buy the raw materials. We are in the process of growing our own but this takes time.
And time is what I haven’t got. I’ve lived a long time. True, I’m fit and able. I can still run a mile and have no more aches and pains than a man half my age but one day I’ll wake up an old man. Peter will have to hold my spoon and change my trousers. Either that, or he’ll have to bury me. And what will he do once he’s filled in the hole? Sit back and wait for the trees to grow? (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these thoughts never crossed his mind. His concern with regard to my escapades on the sands not withstanding, he seems to live in the present and take life very much as it comes. I put it down to his youth).
When you’re out there, there’s nothing else to see except sand, water and sky. As it ebbs and flows the sea creates an undulating landscape in which nothing stays the same for long. What little water is left behind as the tide goes out trickles between the low, rounded peaks and settles in the troughs, forming clear, still pools.
The sun rises quite early at this time of year and the tables told me that, this morning, the tide would be out by 8am. Peter was already up, making coffee. I drank a cup with him and said goodbye. Outside, the tinted glass wall of the house reflected trails of pink cloud and the young, leafless trees of the spinney. I took my usual path through the trees to the dunes. From the top of the dunes I could see the sands already stretching away for a kilometre or more to the distant edge of the sea. The tide was already well out. A man I see often but don’t know by name was out walking his spaniel, which ran around him in wide circles as he strode along the edge of the dunes. He looked up, smiled and waved as he passed me. I smiled and waved back, then jogged down the slope through the clumps of marram-grass to the edge of the beach.
All sorts of things get thrown up here. You never know what you’re going to find after a storm. Pieces of broken beer bottles worn down by the sea to smooth, brown jewels. Plastic containers of all shapes and sizes, their labels so bleached as to be illegible. Once, I even found an artificial leg. On the way back to the house I usually collect up anything I think might come in useful and put it on the pile of collected flotsam and jetsam I’ve accumulated under the trees.
All that happens on the way back. On the way out I just keep going.
I’d been walking for fifteen minutes or more, keeping the sun on my left, before I saw it: something dark and crescent-shaped lying on the sand. It was perhaps three feet long, although it’s hard to judge size and distance out there. As I got closer, things became clearer. My first thought was that it was a dead dolphin but no, dolphins were bigger than that and this wasn’t quite the right shape. It was a porpoise. It’s body was perfectly intact except for a short, red gash in its side. Either some predator had attacked it or, more likely, I thought, it had been caught in a boat’s propeller. I could not help but try to imagine the shock, the pain, the profuse bleeding, the final sight of the sea turning red as everything it needed to know how to be a porpoise faded away in seconds. All that was left was this, a physical memory if you like, of what a porpoise is. It too would be dismantled but more slowly. I was struck by how tenuous are the connections that hold each of us together. It was time to go back.
It all happened a while back, when things weren’t going too well. Chris was ill and I was having all sorts of problems at work. Thankfully, all that is behind us now.
I vividly remember the first time it happened. I was in bed, trying to go to sleep after a particularly stressful day. I was just dozing off when I heard a loud bang. It was as if a giant metal tank had slipped its chains and fallen from a crane. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I sat up and looked around in the darkness. All I could hear was Chris’ gentle breathing. At least whatever it was hadn’t woken him up, I thought. He wasn’t having a good week. He’d just started a new course of medication. The side-effects were not good. He needed his sleep.
I climbed quietly out of bed and went to the window. Surely something must be going on out there, I thought. I pulled back one of the curtains and looked out. Of course, had there been any all-night engineering operations nearby I’d surely have known about it. As it was, I’d neither heard nor seen anything to suggest anything of the sort. I was tired. I told myself to think straight. It must have been a car accident. The street, though, looked empty under the yellow street lights: no broken glass, no twisted metal. I quietly opened the window. Cool air fell on my face. The town was more or less silent. A motorbike went by, a few streets away. I listened as the Doppler shift faded. If something calamitous had happened, there would be sounds of people shouting, sirens, that kind of thing. There was nothing. I closed the window and went back to bed.
I felt sure I’d heard a sound. Had I dreamt it? I didn’t think so. The moment before it happened I’d just decided to check that I’d set the alarm clock. I was working an early shift the next day. If I hadn’t dreamt it I must have imagined it. The trouble is, it sounded so real. You can’t imagine a sound that sounds real.
It started to happen every night. I stopped jumping out of bed to see what was going on. Whatever it was was obviously in my head. Should I be worried, I wondered? Loud bangs happening outside were bad enough. Heaven knows what damage loud bangs were doing inside my head.
Chris told me to go and see the doctor. I did as he suggested and the doctor reassured me: the bangs were not real. My brain was intact. He took my pulse and my blood pressure and declared them to be within acceptable limits. He said I had what he called Exploding Head Syndrome. He said it wasn’t serious. The sounds were a symptom of stress. I should try to relax more. He could prescribe medication but felt it would be more effective at this stage if I were to learn to meditate, to practise mindfulness. There were other options, he said, but that was all he could suggest for now, as my time was up. He gave me a leaflet about stress and a survey form. He told me the health centre would appreciate me filling in the form, as it would help them evaluate the quality of the service they provided.
Over the following weeks the bangs got worse. I started to call them explosions because the louder (or was it the closer?) they got, the more they sounded like explosions. I could hear more detail. Where at first there had been simply a loud, if resonant, report there was now more of a rich ‘boom!’ which took longer to fade away.
One night, after the predictable blast in my head, the loudest yet, I decided to get up and go to the bathroom. As I opened the door onto the landing I was aware of a flickering red light that filled the widening crack. I could feel intense heat on my face. Beyond the door was an open space, far bigger than the landing I knew to be there. Everything around me was on fire. The ground was strewn with rubble.
I might have dismissed the whole thing as a bad dream and willed myself to shut the door the way you sometimes can in a dream but I could see people beyond the flames. They were lying among the rubble, trying to pick themselves up and crying out in a language I couldn’t understand but which sounded, to me, like Arabic. They obviously needed help and I had to reach them. There was nothing else for it: I lunged forwards. If I moved quickly, I reasoned, I’d probably be okay. As I passed through the flames everything changed again. The flames vanished. I found myself standing outside the bathroom in the quiet darkness of the landing.
I went in and turned on the light, which bounced, harsh, off the tiles on the wall. I was breathing heavily. Remembering the advice on the leaflet, I made an effort to breathe more slowly. I felt safe in the bathroom and anyway the vision or whatever it was had faded. Perhaps, I reasoned, I’d been sleepwalking and dreaming at the same time. Strange things happen on the edge of sleep. I looked at my face in the mirror. I remember thinking I looked a little older than I used to look. I relieved myself. I opened the bathroom door and, gingerly, made my way back across the landing. There was no sign of what I’d encountered earlier.
I lay awake for several minutes, unable to go to sleep. I knew I had to go and take a look once more. I had to make sure, for both our sakes, that it was possible to step out of the room without having to face the fire. I got up again and opened the door. Quiet darkness. I turned on the landing light and left the door ajar.
Something had woken him up. Terry wasn’t sure what it was. It might have been Eve turning over, pushing her knees into his side. They were lodged there now, warm and soft, but perhaps they’d been there for a while. It might have been a noise but if it was it had stopped by the time he was awake enough to hear anything. Perhaps it was Ben but that was unlikely. Whenever Ben made a noise it meant he’d woken up and if he’d woken up he’d be screaming. As it was, the house was silent except for Eve’s regular breathing and the cooing of a pigeon somewhere outside. It was no longer dark. Weak light, almost like daylight, was falling through the thin curtains.
Terry turned his head to look at the clock. It was 4.30am. His limbs felt heavy but his mind felt alert: too alert, as if he’d never go back to sleep. A moment ago he’d been dreaming he was driving a car. Someone had been giving him directions. Turn left, turn right, move into the middle lane, take the third exit. The person giving the directions talked like an increasingly hysterical sat nav and the directions were getting more and more complicated. Now, awake, he couldn’t remember where they’d been going. Perhaps he’d never known.
The alarm was set to go off at 8. Until recently, they’d usually been awake when it did, sat up in bed, bleary-eyed, feeding or changing Ben. Things had begun to settle down, though, and more often than not Ben slept through. Now, when the alarm went off, whoever woke first pounced on it to switch it off as quickly as possible so as to avoid disturbing him.
It occurred to Terry that since both Ben and Eve were asleep, he was alone and free to do what he liked. A sense of elation gradually filled his mind the way water sometimes slides across a beach, finding its own level, without ever rising into a wave as such. He had no idea exactly what he was going to do but he decided there and then to get up and do it.
He had to move slowly and carefully. The last thing he wanted to do was to disturb the others. He slid, quiet and naked, out from under the duvet. Fortunately, the light falling through the curtains was now bright enough for him to see what he was doing.
Hunting through drawers for clean clothes would be noisy. He dressed quickly in the clothes he’d worn the day before which he’d left crumpled on the floor next to the bed. He stole across the landing, hardly daring to breathe as he passed Ben’s room, and made his way downstairs.
By now, the sunlight was streaming in through the kitchen window. He filled the kettle and turned it on. As the kettle began to sing he worried that the sound might be loud enough to wake the others but no, not a sound came from upstairs.
He brewed himself a cup of tea and stood for a moment holding it, feeling its warmth, looking round and wondering what to do next. He could sit at the kitchen table. Or he could go through to the lounge and sit in an armchair. Outside he could still hear the pigeon cooing. Other birds were singing, too. It looked warm and bright out there. He opened the back door, turning the key as quietly as he could, and stepped out into the back garden.
It wasn’t much: between two wooden fences an oblong lawn stretched away from him. It was hardly big enough to kick a ball about on. To his left, under the wall of the house, stood a white plastic table and a couple of stacking garden chairs. Scattered around on the lawn were the colourful ephemera that went with small children: a baby-walker, a small plastic bucket and spade, a half-inflated paddling pool.
At the end of the garden a gate opened onto a path that ran along the back of the terrace. Beyond the path, and separated from it by a privet hedge, lay the park. There were trees in the park. Terry could see the light of the early-morning sun shining through and between them. He sipped his tea and then looked up at the sky, noticing -for what felt like the first time- how it just went on up and up and up. There were wisps of web-like cloud you could see through, very high. Over to his right, to his surprise, he realised he could still see the moon, a grey ghost. He put his mug down on the plastic table and made for the park.
Not far along the path there was a gap in the hedge. It wasn’t the official way in and out but you could see that many people used it by the fact that the grass had been worn away around it. Desire-lines branched out from it, fading as they penetrated the open space. The most well worn line, though, led to and spread out around a particular tree. It’s low, curiously-shaped branches made it ideal for climbing. That it had been climbed often could be seen from the patina on the bark. It was very tall and not only were the lower branches convenient to climb onto but also there were plenty of well-spaced branches making it easy to climb -if you dare- all the way to the top.
It was to this tree that Terry made his way. At the foot of it he stopped. He sought out the easiest approach to the lower branches, took hold, and pulled himself up. Above him, the higher branches faded into a mass of foliage. The higher and more inaccessible they looked, the more he longed to take hold of them. The highest appeared from below to belong to a different, better world.
He moved up quickly, his mind absorbed in the route he had to take and the moves he had to make. Towards the top the branches became thinner and he could feel the whole tree swaying slightly beneath him with his weight. All of a sudden, like that of a diver breaking the surface, his head broke through the canopy of leaves at the very top. All around him, in the immediate vicinity, the packed mass of leaves gave the illusion of a solid surface. Beyond this and below him he could see the roof of the terrace and, beyond that, the roofs of other terraces in the other streets that made up that small town. To his right there were hills. To the left there were more roofs, then fields and, further away and less distinct, more hills. Straight ahead, in the distance, he could see the sea.
It was a dream. I was walking along the beach, somewhere on the North East coast, I think, although there’s no specific reason for thinking that. I was walking towards a white tower. It was not unlike a lighthouse: it was circular and the smooth, stone sides tapered. Only, the lantern was missing. The tower was topped instead by a brown, low-pitched conical roof. Perhaps it had once been a lighthouse, I considered. Maybe it had been put to another use and, so, the lantern had been removed.
The closer I got, the more curious I became. I just had to know what was inside it. I made my way gingerly over the slippery seaweed that covered the rocks and the stone foundations around its base and knocked on the large, brown door. It was so substantial that my knock sounded like a mere tap, hardly audible above the breaking of the waves on the beach behind me. Needless to say, there was no response.
I turned the handle and pushed against the door. It was unlocked and fell back easily. I found myself in a low, circular chamber. Just enough light came through a small window for me to make it out. (I had noticed several such windows dotted about on the outside of the structure). The walls had once been whitewashed, but were now tinted green, covered as they were with an irregular film of algae.
I crossed the stone floor to the window. As I did so, I heard the door swing shut behind me. The window was, as I said, small -about a foot each way- and seemed to be made of “bottle glass”. Whatever it was, though it admitted light, it was impossible to see any clear image though it.
Not far from the window, to my left, was the foot of an enclosed spiral staircase, just as you might expect to find in such a tower. I made my way up it, every now and again passing one of the small bottle-glass windows. The staircase emerged in another room. This was very much like the first, though this room was provided with basic furniture. There was a chair, a table and a low divan. The upholstery smelt of mildew and they were all caked in a greasy dust. They had obviously not seen use for a very long time.
There was very little to do except walk around the room and look out of the window. Again, although it admitted light, I could see nothing clearly. There were blue swirls which could have been either the sea or the sky and flecks of yellow that I took to originate from the sand. My curiosity about the tower satisfied, I decided it was time to go.
I made my way back down the staircase to the lower floor. Only, when I emerged at the foot of the stairs I found I was not in fact in the downstairs room but in the room I had just left! I had a good look around me: it was, to all intents and purposes, the same room although now I could see, on the far side of the room, the head of the staircase I had descended only a few moments before. I felt disorientated, slightly nauseous. I decided I must have made some sort of foolish error, although I felt sure that since leaving the upstairs room I had always been walking down the stairs, not up. I could feel myself coming out in a cold sweat.
What was I to do? I had a pencil in my pocket. It occurred to me to leave it on the table and make my way downstairs for a second time. This I did and, when I emerged into the room again, there was my pencil, on the table, just as I had left it.
Sometimes -ever hopeful- I attempt to descend the staircase but the result is always the same. Apart these brief exertions I have been in this room ever since. I sleep, fitfully, on the divan and when I do I dream: I dream I am living my former life. My sister and I sit before the fire, talking animatedly as we often did. Sometimes we sit down to a meal (oddly, all that I need seems to be provided for me in my dreams). Sometimes I improvise on my guitar. I read, I write. I attend to the garden… And then I wake up – to the cold, to the dim light of the tower and to the sweet, mildew smell of the old divan.
Diane’s tone sounded worried, almost interrogative. John was driving just a little too fast, in her opinion, and not slowing up anything like as much as he should as he approached the bends.
“Take it easy…” she said.
John turned to her momentarily. His face seemed unreadable to her, almost unfamiliar. She thought he was about to say something. But he didn’t.
“Whatever’s the matter?” she said.
John said nothing. He could think of nothing to say in reply to her question. In fact, he couldn’t think of anything to say about anything. He felt so confused he didn’t know where to start. Whenever there’s an earthquake you see pictures on TV of buildings teetering on the brink of collapse: move one brick, the wrong brick, and the whole lot will come crashing down. He felt his whole sense of himself similarly poised on the brink of something terrible. He found himself walking around it, on the outside. Pull out the wrong brick, utter one word, and if it were the wrong one it might all fall to pieces. He didn’t want to take the risk.
However, he just couldn’t bring himself to carry on as if nothing was wrong.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” he said.
Diane frowned, unconvinced. She needed an explanation of this inconsistency between John’s actions and his words. They had been together for ten years, ever since they were both in their teens, in fact. They had known each other even longer than that. Their parents had been friendly with one another. Although never in the same class (John was a year older) she and John had attended the same school. John had been her first boyfriend. When they first got together, John’s parents had been a little unsure about the relationship. When they had been together for a while and showed no signs of falling out they let it be known that they thought John should “get a little more experience” of life before getting involved further. Diane -perhaps uncharitably, perhaps not- always felt that, at that time, they wanted John to “do better” for himself. He had ambitions to be an architect and she thought they probably liked the idea of him forming a relationship with another well-paid professional. If so, they were far too civilised to actually say so outright. Neither did they ever do anything to positively thwart the relationship. Instead they pursued an almost Gandhi-like campaign of passive resistance to acknowledging the young couple’s feelings for one another. Diane’s parents, on the other hand, had always accepted the easy inevitability of the situation.
The first major test had come when they both left school. John had gone to study architecture in London. Diane had attended a teacher training college in the Midlands. Once it became clear that their relationship had survived this ordeal by separation, John’s parents began to relax a little, to the point that when they announced that they planned to get married, John’s mother seemed positively pleased.
As for the present, Diane simply wanted the open, honest interaction that had existed between them for so long to be restored. She wasn’t quite sure how long the present terrible state of affairs had gone on for – the onset had been gradual. Was it weeks, or months? Whatever it was, nothing she said or did seemed to have any effect. For hours on end there would be a dreadful, barren gulf between them: straightforward conversation was impossible. The expressions on John’s face would suddenly seem alien to her: looking at it it had sometimes crossed her mind that, had she been looking at a passport photograph and not a real face, she would not have recognised it.
In the not-too-distant past when things had been better, John had told her stories, probably myths she now realised, of failed early space missions during which space capsules had failed to achieve orbit, instead carrying on into deep space -potentially for ever- with a payload of frozen, suffocated human remains. These stories apparently originated from radio enthusiasts who claimed to have listened in to the last words of these asphyxiating cosmonauts on the frequencies used by Roscosmos. Ever since, whenever she thought about them, she found it difficult to get the images out of her head: frozen, space-suited corpses, each strapped to seat, drifting through the darkness, slowly diverging. She could see them now.
Neither of them said anything for a while. Diane thought John seemed a little calmer than he had been before she spoke out. He’d turned off the motorway. They had just passed a sign for Sheffield. They were driving down a steep-sided valley, through an avenue of trees. She opened the map, hoping to locate the place: she felt comforted, absorbing herself in something so normal. She soon found the road on the map: a red line heading towards a strip of blue, a lake between hills. Once they got into the hills they hadn’t got a lot further to go to get to the house. What would they do when they arrived? She craved normality: talking to friends about books, music, films, politics. She was looking forward to the mysterious pleasure one can feel inhabiting an unfamiliar place. The usual associations with the immediate past are temporarily erased. It seems, temporarily, as if the future might be different.
The end of the blue strip appeared ahead of them. She glanced at the map again.
“Turn left,” she said.
They found themselves driving down a road squeezed between a pine forest and the lake. Every mile or so, lay-bys were set between the road and the water’s edge where tourists could pull in to admire the view. John abruptly steered the campervan across the road, into one of them. He turned off the ignition and looked around, his elbows resting on the steering-wheel.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he said.
“Yes it is,” Diane said, gratefully.
“I’ll do my best,” he said.
“I know,” she said. She rested her hand on his thigh. “I think it’ll do you good.”
“I hope so,” he said. “Shall we take a walk?”
“We said we’d be there by 8.”
“Just for a few minutes? We’ve plenty of time.”
They opened the doors of the van and stepped out. There was a strong smell of pine resin from the woods behind them. It was a bright, clear day, but you could tell it was early evening by the slight lengthening of the shadows. There was a hint of a warm breeze. The lake shore had been reinforced with gently-sloping stone blocks. The water was lapping against them with short, sucking sounds.
They walked down to the water’s edge and began to make their way along the stone bank.
“We should do this more often,” said Diane.
“Yes,” said John.
“We spend too much time with our heads down, getting on with it,” said Diane. “We should look up sometimes.”
“Get out of the rat race,” said John.
“Yes – well, sometimes,” said Diane.
“When you’re somewhere like this, you begin to notice what you are,” said John, slowing his pace and sniffing the air. “You begin to feel how you’re supposed to feel. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” said Diane. She was pleased to hear him say the things he was saying. Getting out into the country seemed to be having a good effect on him.
“But what if we feel so good we don’t want to go back?”
“We’re big girls and boys now. We have to go back.”
“Because that’s the way it is.”
John made an expression of almost comic resignation and shrugged.
“We have responsibilities…” she said.
They walked along in silence for a while. They came to an iron grating set in the stonework. Some sort of overflow, perhaps? The grating covered a deep shaft. It was thrilling to look down it.
“We could bring those responsibilities with us, I suppose,” said Diane.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean apply for jobs. Find work down here. Get out of the city.”
A shadow of doubt seemed to pass over John’s face. “But how much of this is real?” he said.
“This isn’t a lake, it’s a reservoir. When they built these places, they flooded whole villages. When there’s a drought you can see the tops of the church towers sticking out of the water.”
“Well – I suppose it’s as real as it gets. As you said yourself, you begin to feel how your supposed to feel here.”
“And when you do, perhaps you begin to see what you’re looking at more clearly. Those hills – those moors over there, they used to be forests. We cut them all down to make charcoal. You can still find ancient tree roots buried in the peat.” He stopped walking. He breathed deeply. He smiled. “But it’s good to be out here, all the same.”
The sun was catching the surface of the water in such a way that it appeared indistinct, unreal. John looked out to the middle, where the light intensified into a bright mass. It was like -indeed was, in a very real, physical way- a barrier between himself and the reality of what used to be, rippling with light over farms, roads and villages that no longer existed. He felt a sudden urge to swim. He started to take off his clothes.
“What on earth are you doing?” said Diane.
“Going for a swim!” said John, smiling boyishly.
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“There’s nothing ridiculous about going for a swim.”
“John! We’re supposed to be at the house by 8! We’ll be late as it is!”
“It won’t take long.”
“Didn’t you see the sign in the layby? You’re not allowed!”
“It’ll be fine.”
“You’ll be soaking wet!”
“That’s a point! We packed a towel didn’t we? Would you be an angel and run up to the car and get it?”
He was by then stark naked, his clothes in an untidy heap beside him on the stones. He would have liked to take a running jump into the water but it crossed his mind that he might land in a tangle of rusty submerged barbed wire or something similarly nasty. And as for running, it took a moment or two to get used to walking barefoot on the rough stones. He walked straight in.
“Thanks!” he said.
Icy braclets enclosed first his ankles, then his knees. The cold struck his groin with a shock but he kept going. Soon he was up to his neck and gasping for breath. Within moments he became aware of the fact that the water felt quite warm. He began to swim. The indistinct, twinkling barrier filled his eyes. It was as if he had morphed into a different creature entirely, one that could fly through the thick atmosphere of the reservoir, pushing the medium aside with its limbs. He quickly became aware of a feeling of deep water beneath him. He felt like a character he thought he’d seen in a Chagal painting, flying over fields, churches, villages, like an angel.
He rolled over onto his back and continued to propel himself with the palms of his hands. The whole depth of the sky swung into view. He lifted his head slightly. He could see Diane stood on the shore. She looked a surprisingly long way away. From her stance she looked exasperated.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine. It’ll be fine. I’ll be back in a minute. Please… If you could fetch me the towel.”
The figure on the bank made a sharp, downward gesture with its hands and jogged off towards the car.
He rolled back over and swam on. Without really thinking about what he was doing or what he intended to do, he took a deep breath and dived under. It was a long while since he’d last been swimming. He’d forgotten how hard in was to stay underwater – his body’s bouyancy and the the air in his lungs fought with him, tried to drag him to the surface. He fought back, digging into the water with his cupped hands. He opened his eyes. They smarted at the contact with the cold water and he could not see very far. He was surrounded by a green glow that faded into darkness. He forced himself down, deeper. He turned, and swam back towards the shore. Soon, from out of the darkness below him, he saw the hillside, now the bed of the reservoir, rising to meet him – mud, scoured of any distinctive traces of its former existence. He began to feel an overwhelming need to breathe. He thrust himself upwards then relaxed, allowing his natural bouyancy to carry him the rest of the way to the surface. A moment later he broke through the barrier again, back into the air and the light. He was close to the shore now. Diane was walking back from the van, a large, brown towel thrown over her shoulder. He swam towards her. The water turned suddenly shallow. He staggered to his feet. He brushed his mane of hair back off his face, combing it with his fingers.
“You ass! You had me frightened then,” said Diane. Her annoyance had dissipated. In its place she felt a familiar mood of semi-comic resignation. John: gentle, sometimes unfathomable, always untamable. If something decent and harmless could be done he simply couldn’t see why it shouldn’t be done. He had no respect for convention for its own sake.
“You should have gone in yourself. The water was lovely. Thanks,” he said, taking the towel. He started to rub himself down vigorously, starting with his head.
And why not, she wondered? Because she was not impulsive. Because she had a respect for rules that she did not like to admit to and which annoyed her: a respect borne of fear. Part of her would have loved to jump in with him. Another, bigger part, told her that the moment she did so, a Water Board van would pull up in the layby. Men in uniforms would come and tell them off, or worse. She envied John his careless sense of freedom.
“You didn’t see any houses, villages, church towers?”
“No,” he said, pulling on his trousers. “Just green light. And mud. Like going to Mars. You know, how they used to think there were canals and all that and now they think there’s probably nothing there?”
She picked up his shirt and held it out to him. He took it.
“Thanks,” he said. He struggled to pull it over his cold, still damp arms. Then he tried to do up the buttons. His fingers were obviously numb. He looked up at Diane with an expression of comic resignation. “Would you?… Please?…”
She started to fasten the buttons up the front of his shirt. So like a child, she thought. This is what it would be like if they had a child, dressing it. She looked up at his face. If they had a child, would it look like him, or like her? Perhaps a bit of both? If so, which bits, she wondered? There was still a triumphant, ecstatic look in his eyes. He’d swum. He’d proved he was a free man and buzzed with the satisfaction of someone who has simply been able to put his thoughts into immediate action. He’d broken through the barrier, even if he’d found nothing on the other side but unbreathable water and a green darkness.
“We better be getting on,” she said.
“So we had,” he said, looking round at the forest and the hill. “So we had.”
I’d sat up late, as I did most nights. I’d slouch in the pilot’s chair in the dull glow of the red night-lights, watching the screen. Usually nothing happened. Now and again computer would flash up a line of text telling us where we were, or what we were passing, internal systems that would need servicing in the morning, and so on. It was warm (everywhere on the ship was warm), the effect was hypnotic, and hours passed like minutes. There was no need for me to be there, as the ship was well able to look after itself. It’s just the way I was then: a teenage insomniac. All the others were twenty or thirty years older than me. I got on their nerves – and they got on mine. I was truly fed up. So, when I saw the computer print-up and it said the fourth planet in the system we were passing through was about the same as earth in all essential particulars I thought why not, I’ve nothing to lose.
No one would be that bothered. We weren’t going anywhere in particular. I didn’t intend to tell anyone what I was doing and I didn’t expect anyone to care that much. And anyway, they were all asleep. I sat up and turned to the pilot’s console. I set a new course that took us in close to have a better look.
I asked computer to tell me more: the size of the planet, its terrain, its climate and, of course, its inhabitants, if there were any. It turned out to be just a little larger than the earth. So what? I’d weigh a little more. Like the earth, sea covered two thirds of its surface. Great, so long as computer didn’t put me down in it. Real beaches.
There were settlements visible on all five continents. Like earth, they seemed mostly to have grown up along rivers and coastlines. They could be seen most clearly at night when they were lit up with electric lights.
One continent in particular attracted my attention. It lay in the southern hemisphere and its interior appeared to be more sparsely populated than the others. There were plenty of forests and mountains, but very few settlements so far as I could see.
‘That’s where I want to land,’ I said, touching the centre of the map computer had helpfully thrown up on the screen.
‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ said computer.
‘Quite sure,’ I said.
‘OK. We need to drop you at 01.55. I see you have not done this before. Am I correct?’
‘Are you sure you want to go ahead?’
‘Absolutely sure,’ I said.
‘O.K., don’t worry. I will control everything from here. G is slightly high so we will need to compensate, but otherwise everything should be straightforward.’
I had half an hour to go before the drop – plenty of time to dig out a parasuit and a twelve-month supply pack.
Although I had lived all eighteen years of my life on it, I had never been outside the ship before. Perhaps you think I must’ve led a sheltered life and no one had bothered to broaden my horizons. You’d be right. I’d just been fed and taught what I needed to know to do a job of work. Nothing had prepared me for this.
The door opened with the beginning of a muffled clang – but the sound was immediately sucked out, along with the air – and me.
I had been standing with my feet on the floor. Suddenly, although I had not turned my body –I’d only been thrust forward, out of the airlock- “up” and “down” had swapped places. If I had been standing on anything I would have been standing on my head, and where the floor should have been there were miles of empty space between me and the planet’s surface.
‘It’s OK, Alex,’ computer said. I could hear its voice through the helmet’s sound-system, just as if it was in the middle of my head. ‘Do not worry. Everything is going to be fine.’
‘That’s easy for you to say.’
‘No it is not. Your life is in my hands, Alex.’
I had already forgotten about my crewmates, but decided I was going to miss computer.
Somewhere below me (above me?) there was a glint of light as the sun caught the supply-pack the ship had released a minute earlier.
The supply pack contained a shelter, food, weapons and a low-level force field among other things. With luck, I would land in a remote enough spot to sort myself out before I encountered anyone or anything. The suit would protect me from any weather an earth-like planet could throw at me – and worse. It was possible –and quite comfortable- to live in one for months on end. So I’d been told.
‘Computer,’ I said. ‘Any advice on meeting the locals?’
‘Now he asks me.’
I began to feel a slight buffeting – the upper atmosphere was beginning to thicken. Otherwise there was no sensation of movement, which was weird, because I was traveling towards the planet at an incredible speed. The readout I could see in the top right-hand corner of my visor said so.
‘Be polite,’ said computer.
‘When you meet the locals. Are you sure you are doing the right thing? I can still bring you back.’
‘I’m quite sure.’
‘Music? People often like music at a time like this.’
‘This person doesn’t.’
The buffeting was getting more intense. A red haze –a stream of hot gas- had formed around me. I began to feel slightly warmer: but only very slightly. The suit’s control system saw to that.
‘This is a very safe procedure,’ said computer.
‘Thank you for telling me.’
‘Accidents do happen though. There is a 1 in 2,000 chance of depressurisation. The same for altitude miscalculation. Now there’s a coincidence.’
The cloud cover looked suddenly closer.
‘In the early days they used fabric parachutes. That was really risky.’
I began to wish I’d opted for the music – Vivaldi, twentieth century rock, anything. I was also beginning to slow down. The red haze faded away and the clouds, now full of detail, were racing towards me.
‘Goodbye,’ said computer. ‘Look after yourself.’
‘I will. Goodbye,’ I said.
‘I’ll drop by some time. Just to see how you are getting on,’ said computer.
‘No need,’ I said.
‘But I will,’ said computer. ‘It’s no trouble. Goodbye’.
I plunged into the clouds. The world turned into a luminous white bubble and either I had stopped moving, or it was following me around.
‘1,000 metres… 900 metres… 800 metres…’ said an unfamiliar female voice. Of course, the computer in the suit.
The white bubble burst. I was looking down at my feet now: unbeknown to me, computer must have rotated the suit while it was passing through the cloud. Below me lay a valley ringed with smallish, rock-topped mountains. The valley was full of what looked like pine trees with a river flowing through the middle. I had time to note that there were one or two clearings in the forest, linked by what I took to be a road, so there was probably intelligent life around. It was hard to be sure of anything, as this wasn’t actually the earth. Of course, I had never been to the earth, either. I had been born ten years after my mother set out in the Deep Space Explorer. All I knew of the earth came from computer’s 3D simulator and what little the crew told me. All I know about my father is that he was an anonymous donor from a planet that no longer exists. My mother told me how computer told her to take a sample taken from the organic stasis unit.
The indifference of the universe, eh? Earth and its fifteen billion inhabitants had come to a sudden end sometime during my indifferent childhood. The stars carried on shining, the almost inaudible hum of the ship carried on as it had for years and years. The crew went about their business or slept. I don’t think anyone can have known exactly when it happened and anyway when things happen that far away it gets complicated. I don’t just mean all the relativity stuff either. All we could know was the faint blip of light, hardly brighter than the glow of the Milky Way, or the end of the weak radio signals that no longer raised themselves above the level of the background noise. And then we would have to work out how far we had travelled and calculate how long it took the signs to reach us. It occurs to me now that perhaps computer had detected the signs and worked out the answers. If it did, it never mentioned it. Perhaps it knows that humankind cannot bear too much reality. Or perhaps it just seemed irrelevant to it and it had no reason to bring it up. Even if it had there would be a margin of error: even computer could never know the exact moment when it happened.
‘600 metres… 500 metres…’
The indifference of the universe. If computer had miscalculated and the suit with me inside it had blasted a crater in the ground, the sun would go on shining and what was left of the forest would go on as if nothing had happened. If the locals found it they would say it must have been a meteorite. Weird stuff happens. Alien conspiracy theorists would have a field day…
The treetops were rushing up towards me. After a momentary green blur, I found myself on a bed of brown decaying pine-needles, next to the supply pack. Yes: to all intents and purposes, they were pine trees. Seeing the real thing for the first time, it struck me that computer’s simulated trees were very realistic. It then struck me that computer had 3D emitters all over the Deep Space Explorer. Computer disapproved of my expedition, so perhaps I was still on the ship. It then occurred to me that if computer’s projections were so realistic, then perhaps everything I had lived through had been a projection. What else could computer do if it had found itself stranded with a human child on a mission to nowhere? Crazy thought. I didn’t believe that computer could really invent the people I had left behind. Computer was good. Computer would invent people that were good and consistent. Or would it? Computer would want me to assert myself, to learn to deal with the real world. I’d been right first time: it was a crazy thought. Crazy.
‘The atmosphere is warm and breathable,’ said the suit computer. ‘There are no perceived bio threats.’ In other words, I could take off the suit.
The impersonal drone of this computer’s voice was beginning to annoy me. There was no room to wire a personality into the chest cavity of a parasuit. If earth had been able to go on making them perhaps they would have found a way by now. I lifted the visor gingerly: the warm air of the forest flooded my face and for the first time my nostrils were filled with the resinous smell of a real pine forest. It was palpably real. It is still my favourite smell.
‘So what’s the plan?’ said the suit computer.
‘Don’t have one,’ I said. ‘Stay put for a while. Work things out.’ I could have added, ‘and modify your software’, but I didn’t. Living the life of a hermit with a computer that talked too much and had no personality didn’t bear thinking about.
‘Where’s the ship now?’ I said.
‘Out of range,’ said the suit computer.
Computer would return. Computer had promised. Computer would return – but when was anybody’s guess. Computers just don’t experience time the way humans do, and it takes a particularly thoughtful computer to take account of that.
(c) Sackerson 2019
All rights reserved