Excerpt from Brightest Star
BEE MCKENZIE would never forget the day the ship had departed from Earth. She’d expected to be sad, even frightened, but with her duties as Helmsman she’d not even had time to say goodbye to the vanishing blue globe – not that she could have seen it anyway, since the ship didn’t have portholes. The asteroid it was made from was entirely enclosed, the hull thick and opaque. If Bee wanted an external view she had to activate a camera on stern and display its image on her screen. Or else send out a drone and train its lens on their wake.
She’d been too busy, however, preparing the ship for launch. They’d be blasting out of their high polar orbit and heading to the stars. Nothing could go wrong – and nothing would go wrong because she’d checked every single system a hundred times. Yet self-doubt nagged. Was there anything she should have done and hadn’t? Or something she had done and shouldn’t have? What if the thrusters proved too powerful and the ship lunged like a bolting mare? Or they were too soft and the ship failed to move? Everything had to be exactly right, down to the nut and washer on the last bolt. The entire ship was watching her – in fact everyone on Earth. Their departure was being televised, with micro-cameras scrutinising her every move, from flickering eyelashes to scrubbed, nervous fingernails. An audience of billions: every Assumptor church on Earth that had a working TV. All those members of the Order who weren’t going and plenty more people besides.
The vote for their mission had been close. Barely fifty percent in favour and almost the same against. They were leaving not only a ruined planet, but a population that was bitterly divided.
Waiting for the moment of launch, she sensed someone standing behind her. Turning, she saw Father Chadwick with his kindly smile. He reminded her so much of her own father – all dreamy politeness and nodding affability. Not that he was a pushover, for she was sure he would lead competently and with great personal pride – he was that sort of man. Likewise she was determined to do things perfectly, especially in a few moments, once all the readings looked right, when she would take a breath and then press the key to initiate blast-off. The engines would power up midships, the thrusters would eject millions of high-velocity hydrogen ions and at last the ship would begin its long, gradual acceleration out of orbit and towards the stars.
She shouldn’t doubt herself. Five years of training at space academy, then another five working as a pilot on the old Earth-Mars run. She was as ready as she’d ever be. Plus all her manoeuvres would be double-checked by computers, and nothing—absolutely nothing—could go wrong. Yet still this was her biggest moment – Helmsman on the inaugural interstellar spaceship Domina Penelope.
A waft of dry air as Father waved a hand at her. His face was shining, and creases of happiness etched the ends of his mouth. He looked too young to be Father, and his short hair had been combed so ruthlessly she swore she could draw sheet music in the gaps. Then he extended an index finger – the signal for their voyage to begin.
Bee gulped more air. She’d waited so long for this moment she could hardly believe it was happening. All her childhood dreams of stars, all the maths, physics and astronomy she’d absorbed at school, then more complicated lessons at the academy. Her whole being shook as she poised her forefinger over the red ignition key. The helm access codes had been entered and the ship was ready to go. She counted down inside her head – ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one – then squeezed her lips and jabbed.
Her pulse quickened. Around her Helm crew – fresh-faced brothers and sisters, many on their first assignment – crouched over screens, none of them wanting to be singled out. In their smart grey skirts and red-and-orange tunics they all looked the same. Father Chadwick too had frozen in place. His pale-blue eyes – the colour of Earth’s toxic skies – were barely moving.
Something critical had gone wrong.
A shorted circuit, a jammed thruster, even the ship’s inertia too much?
She’d had one job. And she’d screwed up. Years of preparation, fizzled to nothing.
The deck moved slightly under her feet. Then the curved, white cocoon of Helm shuddered. Cheers erupted, and green lights winked on her and everyone else’s screens. The ship was edging forward, its thrusters fighting silent space, propelling them on their way.
“Excellent work, Helmsman.” Father grinned. “A very smooth launch, if I might say so.”
“Thank you, Father.” Bee felt relief sweep over her.
“At this rate you’ll have us at Proxima in no time,” went on Father.
“I’ll do my best.” Bee grinned too. She knew it could never be “no time” though the ship would reach a tenth of light-speed. Even then it would take forty-four years to arrive at their destination. Fortunately they’d be hibernating most of the way.
“How about a photo?” shouted someone. “Something for the record?”
“Excellent idea,” said Father. “Our descendants will want to commemorate this day.”
Bee winced. She hated photos. They brought out her porcelain, almost ghostly complexion, the most visible trait she’d inherited from her mum. “How about we take a video of the ship instead?” she said. “I can launch a drone.”
“Yes, let’s do that.” Father nodded.
Bee pressed another key and watched a green dot flash across her screen: a drone accelerating out of the ship. Then she pressed a third key to unfurl the ship’s sails. If they were filming this, the ship needed to plump out its billowing glory.
A web of blue lines expanded over her screen, representing the sails unfolding like a forest of new leaves. As the drone’s lens deployed, a picture appeared on Helm’s large overhead display – a grand vista of the ship as viewed from space.
Bee’s breath caught. She’d seen images of the ship before, yet never like this. How it gleamed in the lithe, bright shape of a whale. The bow was a perfect hemisphere and the stern thinned into a long, arched tail. It looked as elegant as anything created by nature, yet unbelievably was human-made, sculpted and polished out of a small asteroid.
“Fantastic,” said Father. “Are they seeing this on Earth?”
Bee nodded. “Brothers and sisters everywhere.”
“And it’s being recorded?”
Beyond the spectacle of the ship leached the inky blackness of space. The white blob of the Moon too, and—oddly spiritual—the blue arc of Earth. For once the old planet appeared beautiful, all its scars and wrinkles hidden.
“Any chance of panning out a bit?” Father waved at the image. “Show us the sails?”
“It’s already happening, Father.” Bee adjusted her controls. “Just waiting for the drone to get further out. To take in the sails, it has to be three hundred klicks from ship.”
On the overhead display the image flickered, then reset. Around the ship a huge wheel shimmered like a gigantic, luminous jellyfish. Sixty-four wedge-shaped vanes, their thin ends centred around the ship’s mast and their thick ends outermost, one after another in the shape of a circle. These were the ship’s sails, the second largest structure ever constructed by humanity. The ultra-thin material expanded two hundred klicks out from the axis of the ship and covered a total area equal to the size of Greece. And just as a sea breeze would have propelled an ancient trireme’s mainsail, so the force of the Sun’s radiation would push these gargantuan sails forward through space, with constant, tiny increments of speed that must build into a world-shifting velocity.
Domina Penelope was named after the main-belt, M-type asteroid around which its base had originally orbited. A small, iron/nickel-rich moon that had been blasted, hollowed out and fashioned into their ship. One hundred decks, and five hundred people on board – equal numbers of male and female, just how the story of Noah’s Ark in the Bible had instructed them. Yet other similarities ended there, for while the two hundred and fifty sisters were mostly young, pretty and in their twenties, the brothers came in an intolerance of ages and sizes. There was a noticeable predominance of middle-aged bureaucrats from the Home Counties. And the brothers had all the plum roles—positions on council—while the sisters, with only a few exceptions, were seemingly destined to become wives and brooders on the day they landed, interstellar wombs flying to the stars.
Without doubt the ship could have accommodated many more people – thousands possibly. Yet on a journey as long as theirs would be, such numbers could never be sustained, not in terms of air, water and food. Families were out too; they couldn’t take children. Hibernation had an adverse effect on the growing process, at least up to the age of eighteen.
Bee sighed and rubbed her eyes. This was no time to be negative but to wish for a successful voyage. Their future was bright, that and all the light blazing from the sails.
“Everything okay?” said Father.
“Yep.” She nodded at the glare. “Just need a pair of sunglasses.”
“There are supposed to be some on board. Maybe for now, though, switch to forward camera.” Father pointed towards the apex of Helm, beyond which the main mast extended. “Might be useful to see where we’re going.”
Bee pressed another key, altering the view. As she did, several crew exclaimed in chorus, and she looked up, wondering if she’d done something wrong.
It was nothing to do with the view outside. A newcomer staggered across the deck, none other than Brother Ness, their navigator. Plainly he wasn’t used to artificial gravity, nor to Helm’s saucer-shaped upside-downness, the ceiling circling and morphing into the floor. In his dark striped cassock he looked like a well-dressed insect, an exotic beetle of some kind. His arms and legs projected at unnatural angles as he tried to walk.
“Why’ve you sent out a drone?” Ness shouted, his face still upside-down and his pince-nez glasses clinging obstinately to his pointed nose. “You should be focusing on our course.”
“I’m afraid that’s my fault, Brother Ness,” Father said in an even tone. “I wanted a record of this historic occasion. Our great ship setting off on what will be a legendary voyage.”
“It’s more important we get our course right.” Ness’s frown didn’t falter as he inverted himself across the final curve of deck. “Any errors now will cost us dearly later.”
“I’m sure Helmsman has everything under control.” As if shielding her, Father stood in Ness’s way. “It’s also important we leave in good grace. People will remember this day.”
“Of course.” Ness eyed Father grimly. “And we also need to put Earth behind us.”
“We will.” Father gazed ambivalently back. “We will.”
A red light illuminated on Bee’s screen—and, judging by the excited shouts, on other stations too.
“Airlock five’s open,” called Brother Bartholomew from her right. “Some dick’s gone spaceside.”
“Any idea who?” asked Father.
“Just a minute. I’ll put the drone on it.” Bee manipulated her keyboard, and the overhead display switched to a view of a dark square – a close-up of the opened airlock as seen from space. A white spacesuit floated alongside, the visor of its helmet aglow with sail light. In a bulky gloved hand shone something glassy and green: a massive wine bottle.
“It’s Brother Romper,” shouted a sister, somehow recognising the diehard inside the spacesuit. “He’s always been intrepid and he said he was going spaceside.”
“What the heck’s he think he’s doing?” Father stared.
“Delaying us, that’s what,” said Ness.
The spacesuit and wine bottle shot out of frame. The image panned after the brother as the drone pursued him to the ship’s bow.
“He’s going to christen ship,” shouted someone else, “like they did in the old days.”
“But he can’t.” Father grimaced. “Our ship has a name. It’s bad luck to name a vessel twice.”
On the overhead, Romper raised the enormous bottle above his helmet. Swinging, he brought it down, bottom-first against hull. There was no sound, not in space. The bottle didn’t smash but bounced off. Undeterred, Romper swung again. And again.
“Must be frozen solid,” said someone.
“Even with the bubbles?”
“Who said it was champagne? Knowing Brother Romper, it’s probably piss.”
The bottle disintegrated. Fragments of glass floated outwards, causing Romper to whip a defensive glove across his visor. The hand still clutched the bottle’s stem, now jagged. Its sharp edge struck the plastic. As everyone held their breaths, the visor split, then burst. Romper’s helmet fountained, his suit’s precious air gushing outwards. He released the bottle stem and clamped both gloves over the hole. But in vain. The front of his helmet blew apart, his face briefly visible, contorted and terrified.
Bee turned away, unable to watch. So too did many crew, their expressions horrified.
“That helmet was really old,” said Bartholomew. “They stopped making Commandos twenty years ago.”
“Look! His suit’s inflating.”
“It’s not the suit. It’s him!”
Before it grew worse, Bee jabbed at her keyboard, and the image of Romper vanished, soon replaced by the pleasanter scene of the ship and sails. Yet no longer did it seem cinematic. The bubble of hope around their departure had been punctured, and the dangers of space blown up in their faces.
Trying not to envisage Romper ballooning up out there, the gases in his body expanding, Bee focused on her screen and motioned her crew to do the same. “We’ve a ship to launch,” she told them. “We can’t do anything to save him. Make sure that airlock’s shut and let’s get ship safely away.”
In this macabre fashion, Domina Penelope was launched—not with champagne but with blood. When the drone later scrutinised hull for damage, Bee saw that Romper’s exploding fluids had left a permanent stain, the second “e” in Penelope obliterated.
Excerpt from Both Feet in Paradise
The hotel lobby closed around me, no open windows to let in a breeze, no functioning air-con, the dusty yellow unit on the wall suffocating in silence. The only relief came from an ancient desk fan that rattled on the reception counter. It squeaked stale air into my face, pursued by a burst of Madam Blanc’s perfume.
I wasn’t sure why I sat so patiently – on the end of a long green sofa, a week-old newspaper stuck on the top of my suitcase, my hands cupped mask-like over my face – when I could be waiting upstairs in the cool of my room, the window open to a view of trees and birds in the courtyard garden. Madam Blanc would call me down when my transfer arrived. Down here, the heat wrapped around me relentlessly. No shade. No greenery. Only a big plate glass window facing onto the street and sunlight glaring in like a demon.
A car shot past, hooting. A white taxi searching for a ride. Ironic when my ride – a minibus probably – hadn’t turned up.
I glanced at the clock above reception, its hands bent in a lopsided smile. Ten to three. Not too late. Not yet. Then I glanced at my watch, and my heart stopped.
“Excuse me, Madam Blanc?” I stood up and walked to the counter. “It looks like my transport’s a bit late. You wouldn’t be able to phone, would you, and see where they’ve got to?”
“Who?” She blinked at me with violet mascara eyes and puffed out crimson cheeks. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To the airport. The transfer bus was supposed to be here at quarter to three.”
“The transfer bus. I’m sorry. I can’t remember their name.”
“I can’t phone if I don’t know who they are.” Her eyes were hard. Every time I went out she asked me questions.
“Hold on. Let me see.” I picked up my brown leather attaché case from the sofa. All my field notes from the last three months were inside, and my travel documents too. Frantically I shuffled through them, trying to find the right voucher. “Look, I’m sorry, but I seem to have lost it. I know I booked it though – for quarter to three.”
“You want to go for a ride?” She expelled a jet of air between her rouged lips.
“Yes, yes, I do.” I nodded gratefully. “I can’t be late.” And I couldn’t. I had a flight to catch. I was going home. My time on the island was over. I wanted – I needed – to return to my family.
Madam Blanc ran a cherry-red tongue around her lips as if she wasn’t sure what to do. I’d prepaid for my room – months ago – so money owing wasn’t the problem. Her forehead crinkled as she picked up the handset from her antique phone and rotated the dial with a long magenta fingernail.
Somewhere in the ether it pealed loud enough for me to hear. On and on like a solitary church bell, tolling for the dead and no one answering. Madam Blanc’s mouth rounded into an “O”, shaping her whole face around the sound. Then as the ringing stopped, she shouted a word – lunar or something – I didn’t understand. I knew a few words of the local language, please, thank-you, hello, but not enough.
“Five minutes.” She glared and put down the handset.
“And he’ll be here?”
She bit her lip and nodded.
“Thank you, thank you.” With relief I smiled and retreated to the sofa. Everything ran on a different time here. The big colourful buses. The pick-up trucks with workmen standing in the back like bowling pins. The deserted taxis by the roadside, their drivers playing pool in a nearby bar. No one ever hurried. It was too hot to hurry, to do anything quickly.
Nor did the roads ever become busy, though there was more traffic on Friday than other days. People finished work early and headed off for the weekend. My flight wasn’t until six, but there was checking in, security and emigration. Unlike everything else, planes flew to an international schedule.
“Mr Adam.” Madam Blanc closed one brown eye, reopened it and closed the other. “You relax. He’s coming. He’ll take you on a good ride.”
“I hope so.” I felt my heart beat faster. She was right, though. I needed to pump some optimism into my arteries. This new taxi would arrive – very soon. I’d grab my luggage and escape from this sauna of a lobby. The taxi would be cooler. Air flowing through open windows. Maybe even air-con.
The hands on the clock hadn’t moved. They were glued to ten and three.
I glanced at my watch.
Twenty to four.
No hurry, though. I had to relax just as Madam Blanc had said. Plenty of time to get there.
I stood up and circumnavigated my suitcase, one circuit clockwise and two anti-clockwise. I glanced out of the window too. Same street, same loud gaudy shops, same haze of sunshine and diesel. Casually I sat back down, crossed my legs, crossed my arms and rechecked my watch.
Quarter to four.
The room grew hotter. Stuffier, as if the oxygen was being sucked out, a slow death by asphyxiation.
At ten to four I rose and walked to the counter. “Madam Blanc? Please could you check he’s on his way?”
“He’s coming.” Her eyes reproached me.
“I really don’t want to be late.”
“Of course you don’t!” She blew through her lips again. Then she picked up the phone and dialled, the rotary numbers clicking. The same distant bell, the same shouted word, the same glare as she put the handset down.
I’d give the taxi five minutes. Ten at most. If the thing hadn’t turned up by four, I’d go out and find one in the street. There was a rank three blocks down. With luck, someone would be there. I’d sort this out. I probably should have gone looking to start with.
Two hours and ten minutes until my flight. Tight but not impossible. No panic. Not yet.
Sitting back down, I gripped the handle of my suitcase and squeezed it hard. My flight wasn’t flexible but a fixed return. If I missed it, I’d have to pay again. And with only one flight a week, invariably full, I might have to wait one, two or even three weeks before I could reschedule.
I couldn’t wait that long. I couldn’t, I couldn’t. Not under normal circumstances, and especially not with Naomi ill. I needed to travel tonight as I’d planned.
To stay occupied, I picked up the newspaper and thumbed through its pages. All old news, at least a month out of date. It was impossible to get current newspapers here, international ones anyway. Everything in the shops was out of date too, even the food in tins. The shopkeepers might even hoard stock – chocolate, coffee, newspapers – unwilling to sell the more recent stuff until all the older items had gone.
Putting the newspaper down, I pulled out my phone and flicked through the photos I’d taken: hundreds and hundreds of pictures of the forest. And going right back, I reached a different one, the last day of my old life, taken at my home airport before I flew out. The colours appeared faded though it was only three months ago. I looked younger too, my eyes lively and my hair shorter. I had my arm around Ruth, both of us smiling. My wife at least looked the same compared to the memory in my head: her black hair precisely trimmed, her face pale and her ears protruding like an elf’s. She was wearing her favourite blue trouser suit and a blouse with pointed lapels. And in front of us sat our two girls, Natalie tugging at a strand of her long blonde hair, and Naomi posing serenely in her woollen hat, her hands folded together like a tiny Buddha. As always my gaze flickered on Naomi a fraction longer than Natalie. They’d both be disappointed if I didn’t show up, but especially Naomi, after all she’d been through. This trip had been the longest ever, three months of butterfly research, an entire summer consumed.
The photo was a lie, though, ancient history. The girls would look older; they both grew so quickly. Natalie would be seven and a half, her hair even longer, her grin more determined. And Naomi would be five, bigger too hopefully, her hat gone and her hair re-growing. She still had to visit the hospital regularly – consolidation chemotherapy they called it – but the worst was over and she was getting better. I desperately wanted to see her again, to be there for her. Her last treatment had been a few days ago and – with the phone and email not working here – I hadn’t yet heard how it had gone.
“Mr Adam!” Madam Blanc raised a jangly arm to point outside. “Your ride is here.”
A white sedan perched on the curb, its shiny alloy wheels half-on, half-off the pavement, and a stereo thudding inside. Reggae or hip-hop music, nothing I recognised. The noise swelled as the driver’s door jerked open and a man lurched out. He was intimidatingly big, his head the size of a cannonball, his chest a sea-barrel and his feet as long as anchors poking out from underneath his lava-lava.
I stared at the man in dismay. He looked more like a wrestler than a taxi driver. “Are you sure?”
“He is my cousin.” Madam Blanc snorted.
“Really?” I nodded weakly. I should have guessed he’d be family. Everyone in this small town was family. The waitress in the restaurant who was the shopkeeper’s daughter. The night watchman who was also the cleaner’s uncle. And now Cousin Blanc to drive me to the airport.
Shoving my phone into the attaché case, I rose from the sofa and rolled my suitcase to the lobby door. The driver moved faster. With a fiery smile he sprang across the pavement and held the door open. Diesel fumes and the noise from his car thundered in. He prised the suitcase from me and propelled it outside.
“Where are you going?” he said, his voice unnaturally high.
“The airport, please.” I tried not to smile. His enormous size versus his tiny voice amused me.
“You going to see the planes?” He smiled as well, revealing several gold teeth and a cavernous pink mouth.
“I’m catching a plane! At six o’clock, so there isn’t a whole lot of time. Please, can you drive fast? That isn’t a problem, is it?”
“No, Mister Butterfly man. No problems in paradise.” He continued smiling, forgetting to close his mouth. Madam Blanc must have told him about me, all in that one word, or else maybe he liked butterflies too. He stared at my suitcase as if he wanted it to sprout wings and flutter away. Maybe it was too big. Yet deftly he picked it up and laid it in the boot.
“Thank you.” I stepped towards his car, recognising the badge on the front – an upside down “Y” in a silver circle. We had exactly the same make of car at home, and very soon, in five or six hours, after the plane had landed, Ruth would be driving me home in it, with my two little girls in the back.
Thank God, at last I was going home, out of this sunshine paradise. As I reached the car door, I saw a reflection of the hotel façade in its window and remembered Madam Blanc inside. She’d never been particularly cordial, but that was no excuse for not saying goodbye. And running back in, I offered her my hand, unsure whether she’d shake it or bite off a finger. She was that sort of woman – instantly changeable.
For a second, she did nothing. Her eyelids popped up and her mascara quivered. Then with a brusque sweep of her hand, she stroked her fingers along my palm until our fingertips met. “You have a safe ride, Mr Adam,” she said in a purr that I’d never heard before. “I look forward to you coming back.”
“Thank you. Thank you for everything.” I smiled at her, glad I wouldn’t ever be coming back. With a final wave, I stepped outside.
Cousin Blanc was quick, quicker than he looked. Hardly had he helped me into the backseat, than we were racing down the road. Past the shops with their supersonic loudspeakers, past the big white church that faced the ocean, and through the traffic lights on red that Cousin ignored.
I checked my watch again. Quarter past four. At this speed he’d get me to the airport before we’d left. No need to worry. I had an hour and three quarters to spare. And I believed in my own punctuality, my uneventful karma. It wasn’t a big airport. The staff would be helpful and usher me through. Make sure I didn’t forget anything. Make sure I caught my flight.
Cousin’s lips moved in the mirror, sliding over his dentistry.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t hear you.” I waved at the music console, still booming. “Please, can you turn it down?”
He twisted a knob and the volume plummeted. “You sure you want to see planes? I can take you to a nice beach?”
“No! The airport, please. I’m catching a flight.” I slapped my hand on my seat trying to emphasise the urgency. This time I wasn’t on my way to chase butterflies, but something with bigger wings that would never fit in my net.
Sometimes people here asked the most direct questions. Why had I come on my own? Why did I get paid for bug hunting when sensible folk wanted the bugs to go away? Most of them had never heard of an entomologist before, let alone met one, especially one who spent three months away from his young family in pursuit of his job. But that was their way, and being passionate about insects was mine. As long as they left me alone. As long as Cousin knew the way to the airport. As long as the traffic didn’t snarl up and delay us. As long as I caught my flight.
“You want me to take a short-cut?” Cousin rotated in his seat, his voice still squeaky.
“Yes.” Anything to save time.
“Hold tight!” He revved the engine and edged the car towards the centre line. With a burst of gas, he dodged around an oncoming bus and shot into a side-road. A horn sounded behind us. Cousin took no notice but drove faster. Through a building site and somebody’s yard. Onto a rough gravel track climbing into bush.
“You’re sure this is right?” I clung to my seat as the car shook.
“Sure!” Cousin gripped the steering wheel. “This is quick, quick, quick!”
“Your car can handle it?”
“You bet. It’s a Mercedes.”
“Yes, so it is.” I wanted to believe him, needing to feel safe, but knowing his car was never a Mercedes, not with the badge of a Toyota on its bonnet. I hoped his navigation was more reliable. There were side roads, short-cuts and tracks everywhere. They interconnected, divided and joined up again. Cousin was simply bypassing the coast road and leaping over the mountains.
The track steepened. The car bumped over a big rock, then fell into a deep hole.
“You okay?” Cousin shifted into second, the engine roaring.
“Yes.” I shouted back. I wasn’t okay though, I was terrified he was going to break the axle, or worse, crash the car. I’d feel better when we arrived at the airport. And better still when, later, I arrived home. It had been a long time without my family. Just how long had woken me that morning, in a tangle of bedsheets, my face covered in sweat. In my dream, I’d landed back at home and spotted Ruth waiting for me. She didn’t have the girls with her but stood alone, her eyes red, her suit crumpled, her hair distraught. She hadn’t had to say anything. Already I knew. Like I’d always known, a consequence of my not being there, of focusing too hard on my job and not enough on my daughters, especially not my youngest, sickest Naomi.
As the car bounced again, I glanced through the window. The forest raced past: greens of trees, a blur of red and yellow shrubs, the dazzling white track. How they worshipped colour on this island, from multicoloured buses to all the fruits and flowers on sale in the market. And how I’d miss the brightness when I arrived home, back in my own country where the sun hid away.
The car jolted again, my head hitting the roof, then dropped, and my stomach dropped too. I was sitting in a bronco with nothing to grab onto, the seats too slippery, and there were no seat-belts.
“Where’s this track go?” I peered ahead.
Cousin lifted a big hand. “No worries. I know where I’m going.”
“I hope so.” I tried to relax and failed.
The track rose precipitously, a tongue of grit into green. No traffic, no houses, no people, only forest. We were lost in the haystack of the island, a needle in the middle of nowhere.
I hoped Cousin did know where he was going. This road could ruin a four-wheel drive, let alone a saloon that definitely wasn’t a Mercedes. Something scraped underneath me, a tearing in the chassis.
“Are you sure this is right?”
“Really?” I stared at the impossible gradient, ribboning endlessly up.
“Relax, Mister Butterfly. I’ve driven this road hundreds of times. It looks worse than it is.”
“How much further?”
“We’re nearly there.”
My ears popped. We had to be a thousand – maybe two thousand – feet up, on top of the island’s central plateau.
“Are you really sure?”
“Yes. Five minutes and we’re there.”
“Don’t we have to go back down?”
“No. The airport’s up here.”
“Really?” I looked for a clue of urbanisation. A building, a tarmac road, a road sign, a control tower. Then as I glanced at my watch, I felt a wave of panic. It was five o’clock. Only an hour left.
The track levelled, joined another track and expanded into a clearing. A wire fence ran around the perimeter but there was nothing else. The place was all tussocks and weeds. As Cousin stopped the car at one end, I spotted a metal barrier and a tin shed.
“Where’s this?” I feared he’d kidnapped me.
“We’re here!” He switched off the engine, swivelled around and smiled. “This is where the aeroplanes land.”
Excerpt from Making Meredith
Friday, 4 April 1919
The carriage window was too grimed with soot to see through properly, yet Robert stared out, rapt. All the passing fields hypnotised him, how they blurred and shimmered. Everything so green, so glorious, so full of hope. He hadn’t seen grass – trees even – this verdant in a long time.
Slowing, the train rattled up the long incline to Shap Summit. A hiss from the locomotive ahead, and a cloud of black smoke shot past the window. He could smell the combustion – a tarry, mothball aroma that took him back to a time before the war when he used to make this journey with Hugo. He remembered eyeing his brother over the top of his comic, and watching too for the fells youtside that would mean they were nearly home.
Somewhere on this hill hung an invisible border. Soon he’d leave behind all traces of the south – the grime of London and the shell that was France – and re-enter his secret kingdom of the north. The tall forests and cold lakes of his childhood, and the tiny, cradled town where he’d been born. It was this same border that bisected his life too – boy from man, innocence from guilt. All that had gone from everything to come.
He clenched his fists and forced his gaze back inside. The compartment was almost empty, the blue seat opposite unoccupied, the racks clear of luggage. Most other passengers had already disembarked – a woman with bayonet-sharp knitting needles at Manchester, two servicemen in tattered greatcoats like his own at Preston – leaving him prey to his thoughts and contemplating his return.
If he twisted his head left he could see another man sitting further along the bench, by the door that led to the corridor. The man frowned at an open copy of The Times and every few minutes glanced at a wristwatch. Not a returning soldier, Robert decided, not even one who’d swapped his uniform for civvies. The man’s waistcoat was too red, his brogues too shiny, his skin too pale.
Uneasily Robert shifted and looked away. The man rasped like he might have a cold. He’d said absolutely nothing. Since Preston – a full hour ago – they’d sat four feet apart and not exchanged a word.
The war was over. Men were slipping back into their old ways, once again conversing with only their own class and wearing their upper lips even more stiffly than before. All of which suited Robert. After a rough Channel crossing, a day kicking his heels at Crystal Palace dispersal camp, and then this long rail journey north, the last thing he wanted to indulge in was idle small-talk. Home loomed, and he hadn’t been back in four years – not since volunteering, not since Gallipoli. Not since Hugo.
His mother would cry when she saw him, and his father – despatcher of ireful missives – would still be angry. He had his father’s arrows of correspondence somewhere, encased in a galvanised tin in turn buried in his case. He kept them as a kind of cilice, knowing their barbed words, and as a talisman too, warding off his guilt.
He shifted in his seat again, thinking of his dead brother, of the homecoming to come. Despite the ravages everywhere else the town would loiter in its pocket of time, untouched by gunfire, shells or rhetoric. The streets still narrow, the houses too close together, the windows and doors too small. Even the front door to his parents’ house would remain gunmetal grey and gridded like a portcullis. He saw himself pulling the bell handle and no one answering, so he’d pull again, and knock and call.
Inevitably it would be his mother – thin, grey-haired, languid – who’d open the door. She might clutch his arm, embrace him – but not for long, afraid his father would judge. Inside the entrance hall would smell of lavender and vinegary polish. The same old long-case clock would lean against the wall, the same three-legged table, the same cracked mirror – nothing updated, everything unchanged.
His mother would shoo him into the front room and fetch tea. Then, like thunder, his father would stir overhead. The scrape of a chair, the thud of boots, the slam of a door, and muttering as the old man tramped downstairs. A pause. A crash, and his father would burst in, nostrils flaring, eyes on fire. He’d shout and pummel the air. A shrapnel of accusations. How Robert had let the family down by being a medic instead of a fighter. How he’d let down his brother too by being human rather than a miracle-worker. This would be his homecoming. No returning hero – a coward. A traitor.
Robert shuddered and looked out through the train window again. Outside the sky had darkened, the air dancing with points of white. Snow – like those times when it had fallen in the trenches, stifling the noise of gunfire and conjuring a magical, momentary peace. Perhaps this snow at the top of Shap was an omen too? One last marker in his long, lonely journey? From here on it would all be downhill, back into the sun-filled valleys of his youth. Perhaps – he could only hope – his father would have mellowed and forgiven him. His homecoming not an ordeal, but a chance to start his life again.
The train clanked and sped up. Up ahead, the locomotive must have already passed the summit and begun its descent. Outside, the snowflakes thinned and stopped. It was still cold though, and Robert shoved his hands into his pockets and pulled his coat tight, his preservation instinct kicking in. It had kept him alive when so many of his compatriots – patients, stretcher-bearers, fellow medics – had perished.
Some days he’d thought about reversing the needle and injecting the morphine into his own arm, a numbing even fatal dose. He could see the pain in everyone he treated, yet they couldn’t see the pain that dwelled in him. How many times had he remonstrated with himself, banging his fists and stamping on the ground, knowing he’d done his best and could do no more? Even now, six months after armistice, his culpabilities sometimes caught up and tripped him over. Only two days ago, as he’d waited in the queue for the ship, a soldier had tapped him on the shoulder and dangled an empty right sleeve in his face.
“Remember me, doc?” the soldier had said. “How I could move me fingers before the operation, but not after? Cos you hacked me bleeding hand off, didn’t you? I was a clerk. Now what am I going to do?”
The train lurched, and Robert pulled out his own hands and stared at them. His fingers were long and thin, bloodless. He’d only done what he had to – cut off an arm, a leg, a hand, to save a life. Yet how would he have managed if it had been him who’d lost his hands? He couldn’t be a surgeon any more, even if he’d wanted to. Nor could he become a general practitioner, as he hoped, in his hometown.
“I do hope you’re not thinking of strangling me?” A low voice cut into his thoughts.
Startled, Robert lowered his hands and turned to the other man.
“No, no, not at all! I must have been daydreaming. I haven’t slept properly in days.”
“Returning home, are you?” The man didn’t smile. His face was starched and hard, and only his eyes seemed to be alive.
“Yes, I am.”
“Sort of.” Robert decided not to say too much. There was something odd about the man. Perhaps he was a strangler, waiting until he had his victims alone. “I’ll get a bus at Carlisle. I live further west, in a tiny place. You wouldn’t have heard of it.”
“It’s south of Dearham.”
“Really?” The man’s eyes glinted. “You don’t look like anyone who’d come from Dearham. They’re all farmers there. I never knew a farmer who stared at his hands.”
Robert flinched. “Like I said, I was daydreaming.”
“You’d better not daydream in Dearham! It’s no place for deadweights.”
“Who are you exactly?” Robert decided the man was impertinent.
“I could ask you the same.”
“Except I asked you first.” He wasn’t going to be intimidated, not after what he’d been through. “I’m quite prepared to tell you who I am, sir, but only once you’ve answered my question and told me who you are! I think that’s how it works between gentlemen. I’m sure the war hasn’t changed that.”
“It’s changed you though, hasn’t it, sonny!” The man stood up, his hands flapping in and out like gills on a fish. “And not for the better. At least when you were in knickerbockers and garters you kept your mouth shut and no one had to listen to your warbling.”
Robert felt his cheeks flush, his neck too. “Excuse me, sir, do I know you?”
“Doesn’t look much like it, does it?” the man sneered. “Whereas I realised straightaway who you were. Dearham indeed! You’re going home to Meredith, aren’t you? That’s where you’re from. Ben Lachlan’s son, God damn you and your family! Thought we’d seen the last of you when you went off to war. But oh no! First, you as good as slaughter your brother, and now you have the gall to come back.”
“Why, how dare you!” Robert rose, incensed. Balancing in the shaking carriage, staring, he realised who the man was. Christopher Cushing, no less, the latest in his abhorrent blood line – a bully and a cheat like his father and grandfather before him. The same family that had feuded with Robert’s for nearly a century, and with the war over was no doubt ready to resume hostilities for another generation.