Tag Archives: fiction

Specks of unfallenness

“There was now no place on earth left where there was a memory of a time without evil” (Tolkien).

What if that was not quite true?

What if there’s unfallenness
In little flecks and specks?
Little bits of Eden.
Resonance of bliss.

What if there was space and time,
Where the fall just hadn’t happened?
Where illness needn’t blight our lives,
And all might live like Adam?

So ill was David, he had to be trundled to the aircraft in a wheelchair, and helped from the air bridge to his seat by his wife Ruth, with the assistance of solicitous cabin crew. It was just possible that the wasting disease, the creeping illness that struck him down at random, could be treated with a rare new procedure only available on the other side of the world.  In the times since his illness had struck, Ruth’s world had focussed and shrank down to almost nothing.  There was only caring for her husband, looking after his welfare, keeping him clean in body and mind and spirit – keeping his spirits up.  Neither of them were young anymore; their children had long since departed into the wider world and had themselves become parents.  Ruth was worn down with care, and grey-faced with exhaustion. She did not look forward to the 12 hour flight to London, even in business class. As for David, she was not even clear that he was compos mentis at all; the  drugs he needed to stay the pain had been augmented by additional drugs to allow him to fly.  This was a last ditch attempt to find a cure, to find relief.

She was so constituted as to have no concept of doing anything other than her duty.  She barely even thought about it: in sickness and in health. No resentment at her lot troubled her.  She was unworried by bitterness or any sense of the unfairness of life.  In this she was lucky; her yoke was easy.  All she had to deal with was ever-present tiredness, with which she had to do battle daily, even hourly.  The last few years had been a quick but nonetheless arduous journey, a terrible path from the full health of the late afternoon of life, to the place there were now: a gathering evening storm, from which perhaps, there was no shelter. Thirty-odd short months, and now twelve eternally long hours, and then onwards: to meet with consultants, urbane sun-tanned clinicians half the age of her husband, polite, distant, ever so slightly but unintentionally patronising.

And all after an insect bite. Her David had been bitten by some insect, while they were on holiday in Namibia. He had swatted it away, thought nothing of it. Later, the itchy bite, the scratching, the cream.  Months later, like a betrayal, like a sudden unlooked-for defeat, the intense pain: to hospital, to discover that there was the dread infection of a mysterious wasting disease.

David: I need to hang in there and be good.  This really hurts now and even with these amazing tablets, I’m not really coping. I can’t be showing how weak I am; not because I’m tough – because I’m not.  I want to stay strong for my wife. I don’t want to let her down or discourage her, my dear darling wife of all these thirty-odd years. What a star she is; silver and gold to me, she has been. It’s not just the pain; it’s the dizziness, the nausea.  I hate nausea. To feel sick is to feel like death. I don’t want to wish I was dead: that’s God’s timing, not mine.  But there have been times when it’s been all too easy to wish just that. I wished I was dead. It’s like a panic rising up in me; like bile in my throat. I have to make constant efforts to push down the urge to panic, resist the urge to let my mind get out of control.

He thought again of that damned insect: he remembered it so well, the bite on his neck, the raised hand, the swatting away. Some kind of goddamn horse-fly. He grimaced at the thought. And afterwards, pain and itching.  But it was only an insect bite.  Soon enough forgotten.  Months later, back at home, he’d woken up with a fever one night with terrible sweats. Mopping his brow, drinking plenty of fluids. By morning he’d had a headache like an angle-grinder shrieking and whining away in front of him, the sparks going on his forehead and in his eyes. He’d gone to the doctor; the doctor had just taken a look at him and prescribed more painkillers and rest. He’d gone home again and followed the doctor’s instructions.  Two days later he collapsed.  The next thing he knew, it was a week later in hospital, him coming out of a coma with the worried face of his Ruth looking down at him.

The aircraft taxied out, turned onto the runway, and started it’s lumbering roll toward London. At least the noise and vibration weren’t too bad.  Course set, cruising altitude reached, and the long haul along the length of Africa began.

II

“Did you hear about that aircraft that nearly crashed, and everyone on board was somehow healed of all kinds of diseases?”

“When was this?”

“Couple of weeks ago. There was a short piece on the news, but it disappeared soon enough. I remember seeing it in the news at the time and it piqued my interest, because the flight was off course and had flying much lower than usual across some desolate stretch of African jungle.  Can’t say I understood or believed all the accounts of what happened in terms of healing.  But I came across it again the other day, and believe me…”

“Oh yes?”

“A patient was referred to me from South Africa. A gentleman had contracted some kind of an infection from an insect bite, and he had developed some very odd, very rare, and very terminal disease or syndrome of diseases arising from that infection.  I have all the notes; dreadful; a most unpleasant and horrible business, believe me.  It made Bilharzia look a cold in the nose, believe me. This guy and his missus were on that flight. I saw them a few days ago, and there can be no doubt in my mind that he was completely clear of any infection. He was going to die hard, and now, it’s like he’s thirty years younger. It’s just completely impossible, if I hadn’t seen the guy, checked him out as a doctor, and done the tests, I wouldn’t believe it.  I still don’t believe it, but the evidence is walking round the streets of this great city of ours.”

A number of factors conspired to a significant change of course for this particular flight. One, was a storm of unprecedented violence and tenacity right in the intended path of the aircraft. This, of itself, was manageable and, whilst unusual, did happen from time to time.  Controllers and crew had a range of alternatives from which to choose – different slight variations in vector, all intended to keep their passengers from getting bumped out of their seats.  The other, was ongoing civil war in a central African country right under some of the proposed new flight paths.  Whilst this did not pose a threat to the aircraft as such, it was company policy not to overfly this country if it could be avoided at all.  The “Swiss Cheese” Model of safety theory tells us that accidents happen when holes (as in slices of a Swiss Cheese) in a number of different layers or slices of prevention, all line up, allowing an accident to slip through.  Normally, the holes in these layers are all in different places, and because they never line up, accidents don’t happen. The barriers are in place.  But if by some malign mischance they do line up, then the defences are down, and accidents can happen.

The huge lumbering liner banked to port and began to lose height, all according to plan.  What was not according to plan was more – and very severe – clear air turbulence which took everyone by surprise. The aircraft dropped like a stone; loose equipment was flung about and people walking around the cabin or who were not strapped in were sent flying into the air. At least one passenger was killed instantly, his neck broken from being slammed into the ceiling of the cabin.  In economy, a trolley was lifted into the air weightless and landed on several passengers, causing some dreadful injuries. There was for some time, rank terror in the cabin, shrieks of panic and dismay, before order, such as it was, could be restored, first aid given, and an attempt at tidying up could be made.  The captain, grim-faced, heard the reports from his cabin crew in silence. Arrangements were made to descend and land, at a coastal city in a country not normally served by this airline. For some time, the captain found his aircraft to be flying through airspace not normally used by civil aircraft, with darkest green jungle and mountain far beneath.

Ruth thought, this turbulence has been going on for too long.  Bouncy bouncy and I could do with another drink. She glanced up at the lit up “seatbelt” sign. As she did so, she sensed and felt the aircraft start to bank deeply to the left.  To do so whilst circling to land in a big city, was usual, but to do so out in the wilds of Africa, was unusual. What was happening?  And her heart and her stomach all of a sudden were in her mouth; the aircraft was falling; she was weightless. She felt herself rise hard against her seatbelt. Her book and reading glasses flew into the air. She automatically looked across at David in the next seat; his eyes came open from a drowse and caught hers. Even in this time, even in this pain, they were unreadable. Or so he thought.  She knew what they were saying. Unreadable meant something: David’s face, his eyes, she’d always been able to read: he was never a poker player or any kind of an actor, at least not until this disease had struck and the shutters had had to come down.  Another jolt: a violent tug upwards and then a jink downwards.  All around, shrieks and moans as the passengers felt the aircraft judder and sway around them.  The sound of small objects: cups and glasses, books, pens, tablets, being thrown around the cabin.  A dust of loose objects rattling around inside a cylindrical steel can, faraway over the jungle.

After this in-flight catastrophe, the aircraft made it’s way down to an airfield serving a city in a country that was wild and undeveloped even by the standards of west Africa.  Yet, land they must, and address the casualties amongst the passengers, attend to first aid and check that nothing was damaged on the aircraft. There was one rather odd experience common to all the passengers, as the aircraft descended.  It was as after the aircraft had come down through the clouds. Deep in the clouds, all of a sudden, there was a few brief seconds when it seemed as if the aircraft was lit up by golden sunshine. Perhaps, some of the more practical passengers reported, long afterwards, there had been some form of voltage surge to cause all the cabin lights to briefly brighten up.  Problem was, the records and the evidence in the computer systems of the aircraft, found no evidence of any such surge. But every passenger reported that they had felt suddenly as if the cabin had been lit up by sunshine. There was no report of lightning or of any explosion or anything of that sort.

David: The Bounce woke me up from a light slumber. I was reasonably tightly strapped in, so I didn’t move very far.  Books and various other things went lying into the air, including my all wife’s things.  After the Bounce I was no longer asleep or even drowsy; I was wide awake. After the chaos and panic was addressed, the aircraft began to descend; the Captain had announced what had happened and what was going to happen, how we were going to make an unscheduled landing at the city of Noula.  Even though I was already awake at the time of the sudden flash of sunshine, it felt as if I was woken up by it.  I suddenly came awake or was somehow revived.  I never saw it as such even though I was awake.

Ruth: My life is divided into before that flash of light, and after.  I’ll never see things the same way again. I was so tired.  Came that flash, that sudden burst of light, and it was as if someone had mopped my brow with Ambrosia. I can’t put it any other way. I felt renewed and refreshed; it felt like I’d been asleep for a hundred years, and awoke on a late summer’s morn. All my weariness was gone: my mind was cast back over thirty years to my youth, to those golden moments, those shining hours of youth.

Much delayed, after a certain amount of trouble in Noula, the airliner took off again and made its way to London, whence it arrived nearly eight hours late. 

Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst

Holiday reading? Yes: I’ve long enjoyed the writing of Alan Furst. He writes exquisite English, with nuanced characters, all having complex, ambiguous motives. He has deep sympathy for the fallen, human condition.

But for all that, Dark Voyage is different. It has the same male protagonist making his way through a world distorted by Nazi Germany, someone who is at root, a modern European in a world dominated by war splitting Europe asunder. It has the same cast of characters – the shadowy, morally bankrupt SIS agents, the Russian emigres, the fixers and shakers in smart suits. The women. He even manages to get in a dinner at Table 14 at Heinigers in Paris, though only in flashback.

Unusually for an Alan Furst hero, the main character speaks English. Also, most of the action takes place at sea, and here is the rub. I was, as a former seafarer myself, drawn to the book on that basis. At the same time – and I’m not entirely sure how the author would take this – Dark Voyage reads like a Douglas Reeman novel. Reeman’s naval stories are – like Furst’s books – quintessentially readable tales about the frailty of the human condition in time of war or impending war. Both writers suffuse their stories with the gentle light of compassion and understanding for their characters. Both -as the jacket of Dark Voyage attests – fundamentally humane writers. Wonderful, relaxing stuff. Reading does not have to be hard work.

Dark Brandelhow

Two nights ago, he and the others had escaped from Force Crag Mine. They’d made their way across the grain of the country, through trackless valleys and overgrown fields, through the dark and the storm, travelling at night, hiding up in the daytime.  They’d got here late on the second night, drenched, cold and shivering, and had holed up in the ruins of an old outdoor centre.  They’d no means to light a fire, and nothing to cook even if they could. The ever-present risk of being caught, weighed heavy upon them like their cold, wet clothes.

Their pickup was to be by boat, on the lake that had been called Derwent Water. There was a jetty in these overgrown woods, near a place they’d heard was called Brandlehow.  An old jetty from better times, when there had still been such a thing as tourism. But now, these once busy woods, these unkempt fields, all the land about, were drear from decades of neglect.

Only the trees moved, roaring and bending, creaking in the wind. The rain dripped from the leaves of Autumn, and where there was no shelter, it came down endlessly, an unstoppable grey noise.

Hope ebbed away as the grey daylight grew stronger. Sheets of rain obscuring the mountainside became visible. Dark clouds were down on the high tops. Wind was whipping the water into a frenzy. Even on this lake, there were substantial white-horsed waves thrashing the stones of the shore. The wind was like a solid noise in the tree tops; the rain, relentless, dispiriting. Despair and defeat was an actual taste in the mouth. It seemed to be over. They would be stuck here, and stuck here, they would be caught.

As the daylight thickened, the weather, if it were possible, grew worse. Nothing animal or man was out and about or moving in this weather. Small furry creatures were hidden away in their burrows and holes, hiding from the storm. Such people as were left in this remote part of the country would likewise be in their homes. It was all wet leaves, mud, sodden clothes, wet hair, wet and cold feet. Hunger gnawed at them, weak as they already were from working in the mine. They were paralyzed with defeat and exhaustion, hunkered down in the woods, sheltering in long collapsed ruins, buildings that had been derelict for decades.

The crunching sound of footsteps…what was that? His heart hammered. A man appeared from around the corner of the ruined building, wearing a rain-soaked outdoor jacket made in the previous century, and a leather hat. Rainwater dripped from the rim. He had a straggly beard, and missing front teeth. He looked silently at the fugitives for a few moments, saying nothing, and yawned hugely. The three of them struggled tiredly to their feet. The stranger did not speak. He just indicated with a jerk of his head, in a voiceless movement, that they should follow him, and almost as quickly as he appeared, he was gone.  One after the other, the three fugitives limped back out into the rain and wind, their feet squelching, wet socks, wet shoes, blisters. Their footwear was light prison issue work shoes, not really appropriate for walking in wild country in heavy weather.

Following the stranger down through the dripping woods, they came to what looked like a derelict landing stage.  A rather odd-looking boat was alongside.  The boat was somehow, difficult to see. It was certainly grey. It sat very low in the wave-strewn water. Or was it grey? Was it bigger than it appeared to be? The three of them climbed onto the landing stage, each casting dubious and fearful glance at the violence and malevolent passion of the waters beneath, and thence, following the man in the hat, down onto the strange grey boat. Close-up, it looked like a launch of some kind. As soon as the men were aboard, the boat jerked violently astern, and, rocking violently, turned away from the shore. 

The interview

The interviewer glanced sharply at Igor. Whilst she did not actually move her eyebrows, he had the impression that she did not approve of him.  Negativity and discouragement seemed to come off her in waves.  He made a conscious decision to gather up his courage, taking it up about him as if it were an actual cloak; with an effort, which he hoped was concealed, he held her gaze steadily.  He’d been through battle, through fire and storm; he had no need to be afraid of such as she – and yet, he was. But where had she been at Yekatarinburg? Had she attained to battlefield promotion? Had she seen what he’d seen, done what he’d had to do? Yet, he knew in his heart the answer to all those questions.  The interviewer was an air force officer and very much senior to him. She was a combat veteran – we all were. She would have seen as much action as he, if not more than he.

She took a short intake of breath, as a precursor to speaking.  Ages passed in an instant.  All time seemed to him to stand still in that single moment between her little intake of breath and the words that he knew would follow.

“OK, Major. Thank you for time and for joining us today. The panel will consider your application and we will let you know in due course.”

And that was that.  He had hoped against all hope that he would know in the interview itself, though he should have known better. He would have to wait. He arranged his face in what he knew would appear as a grave and formal military mask, and thanked his interviewer.  He pushed back his chair, rose to his feet, and saluted the officers of the panel. And he left the room.

“What does the Group Captain think?” asked one of the other two members of the panel, once Igor had left the room.

“He’s easily the strongest and most able candidate we’ve seen so far. A definite.  I don’t want him thinking he’s God’s gift to Mother Russia though, so I had to take a stern line with him in the interview. If he has a weakness, it’s that he will tend to see things in black and white.”

“That could be his downfall” replied the Army officer to her left.

“Indeed.  In these times, the need is for balance and nuance, for political nouse, for treading carefully through the post-war wreckage and taking forward what is right, but letting go what is not right, whilst not condemning it overtly.”

“Letting the old, bad ways wither on the branch”, put in the Army officer.

“Tochna” replied the third officer, heretofore silent. Precisely. “Much is at stake.  Stray but a little to the left or to the right, and our new-found strength will snap in our hands.  We would not wish to return to the past.  Russia has moved a long way during and after the war.”

The Sparrow, by Maria Dona Russell

Maria Dona Russell’s “The Sparrow” – a good and readable Sci-fi story. That is praise enough, in the end, in a world where readability and good English seem to matter less and less.

I write that, but I’ve just finished Stephen King’s classic novel “The Stand”. Stephen King is an icon amongst wannabee writers. In all of “The Stand”there are perhaps two or three adverbs. 28 pages into “The Sparrow” and one of the characters is doing something”expressively”. Hmm.

Whilst ostensibly writing sci-fi, she has used sci-fi memes to enable a discussion of such eternal matters as celibacy, pride, marriage, and relationship. Her Jesuits seem believable to me, though her space vehicles and her aliens are perhaps less convincing, and beg more questions than they answer. It’s an interesting point; after all, what is fiction for but to stimulate the discussion of ideas?

Her Puerto Rican priest Fr. Sandoz is the central towering figure; gaunt, hugely capable, prideful, strong. Yet he is utterly destroyed, ruined, by his appalling experiences on the alien world. It was his pride and strength that helped destroy him. He is healed and restored to wholeness in the end, not by the working of grace, nor even by human compassion, but by robust and stern treatment from his superiors at the Society of Jesus. This I find unconvincing – but I believe in grace.

Alpha Centauri is one of the very nearest stars to Earth. That humankind should receive radio signals from intelligent lifeforms from somewhere as relatively close as that, implies that the universe must simply teem with intelligent life around almost every star (in keeping with the ideas of older writers like Poul Anderson or even more modern authors like Stephen Baxter.) But she has not taken this idea forward.

The relativity and ballistics seem fine at first glance. Her space vehicle gets to Alpha Centauri in about 18 years (as seen from Earth) but time dilation makes the journey time about a year as seen from on board. The engines of her space vehicles remain as undescribed as those of Iain M Banks, and are even less convincing thereby. To accelerate at 1G up to light speed, and then decelerate again, as one must to reach Alpha Centauri in less than decades, implies quite remarkable fuel consumption. There are some interesting gaps in her engineering, but in the end her book is not about engines and aliens, but about people and human relationships. An astonishing work and I’m glad I found it.