Gone

The man in the seat in front was picking his teeth with what looked like a straightened-out paper clip.  Head bent forward over the green canvas bag on his knees, he appeared to be engrossed in this exercise, even obsessed by it.

Randall tapped him on his shoulder, hesitantly.  The man turned, still picking, showing Randall a face much older than he first thought.   “Yeah mate?”

“I’m sorry if I…can you tell me, is Hall Park Gardens the next stop?”

The man frowned, examining the end of his improvised toothpick for a result, and finding none.  “Hall Park Gardens?  Nah, don’t know no Hall Park Gardens.  Wrong bus, mate.”

“Oh, no!”  Randall pushed himself back into his seat.  The bus banged over a pothole, jarring his spine.  He remembered why he hated buses; the immediacy of human contact, the hard cushions, the noise, the wasted hours and inexplicable diversions through endless residential streets.  Why had he allowed himself to be dissuaded from driving here?

“That’s a wicked place for parking, Take the train.  It’s ever so simple!  The Fifty-Nine bus stops right outside the station.  It goes more or less straight to St. Mary Magdalene.”

More or less.  More or less!  Randall stared out at a strange street, at kebab shops, emporia for shoes, for vegetables, for fashions:  a strange street in a strange city – strangers on the pavements, dashing or wandering, as lost as he.

“Smartly dressed.  Funeral I’d say.  I’m right, aren’t I?”  The man in the seat in front had turned to face him again.  Salt-and-pepper grey stubble on a sallow, smoke-dried face.

“Yes.  Yes, that’s correct.”

“Thought so.  White shirt, black tie.  Thought so.  Family?”

“No, no.  A friend – an old friend.”

“Sad, very sad, that.  What church?”

“Sorry?”

“What church is the funeral at?  That’s where yer goin’ innit?”

“Oh.  Oh, yes.   St. Mary Magdalene.  Yes, the funeral’s there.”

“Bleedin’ ‘ell, were you ever on the wrong bus!  Lissen,”   the man leaned a beige jacket-clad arm on the back of his seat.  “Forget about Hall Park Gardens, dunno where that is, anyway.  Lissen, I’m gettin’ off next stop, but you stay on for two more stops, yeah?  Get off at The Broadway.  Take the Number Twelve goin’ east.  It’ll have ‘City Centre’ on the front.  St. Mary’s is either the fourth or the fifth stop on that route, alright mate?  Don’t take the Twelve B, that goes a diff’rent way, see?”  Randall’s tooth picker reached for the stop button on the pillar at the gangway end of his seat.  “Good luck, mate.”

Something about the man was familiar, reminded Randall of someone.  He looked up to ask, but the man had gone.

The Broadway proved to be a wide avenue of larger dwellings, its pavements lined with tall plane trees beneath which a number of past residents had, in return for a plaque dedicated to their memory, provided those seats more commonly associated with city parks.   Regaled by birdsong, Randall rested upon Allen Shopland’s memorial laths with peace of mind only faintly disturbed by the association in his memory between St. Mary Magdalene’s Church and Hall Park Gardens.  Somehow he was sure the one was to be found at the end of the other, although whence that memory came was a mystery to him.

A bus arrived, putting an end to his disquiet.  He flashed his travel card at the screen by the driver’s seat and contemplated asking its morose incumbent to tell him when he had reached his stop, but the driver’s demeanor was less than communicative so he held his peace.  A church, after all, could scarcely be so inconspicuous as to be missed.

Wedging his knees behind yet another bus seat, Randall surrendered himself to the pitch and yaw of the different vehicle, trying to concentrate upon his memory of Michael; of their years serving together in the Middle East and the close bond between them that was broken by the end of their army careers.  What on earth had brought his dear friend to live in this vast urban sprawl?  What could possibly have possessed him to settle here?  Michael was dead:  after so few years it was inconceivable; was it illness, love for Belle who had strung him along so mercilessly, or was it this city that had killed him?  The memory of Michael’s face, shining with the smile that was so uniquely his, filled Randall’s eyes and his heart, bringing tears as it always did.  He was not so old he could not weep without shame.

“Close, were you dearie?”   There was a woman sitting next to him.  “Move over a bit, dear.”

Beyond the window, streets and houses flashed by.   How many stops was that?  He had lost count.

“We’re going too fast!”  He cried.

“This driver, dear.  He’s a bit of a psykiepath, if you asks me.  Is this your stop then?”

“I don’t know.  Is it St. Mary Magdalene?”

“Lord no!  You’re going in the wrong direction, dearie.  You wanted the one for the City Centre!”

Frantic now, Randall jabbed at the stop button, thrusting out into the gangway.  “Stop!  Stop!”  He half-stumbled forward, swinging gibbon-like from rail to rail.

“Stay behind the line!”  The psychopath commanded him, then checked in his interior mirror.  “Oh, gawd!”  The bus was drawn quickly to a halt, incurring a clamour of displeasure from nearby traffic, doors opening with a viperous hiss. “Go on, get off!”

Randall had no idea where he was.  He only knew Michael’s funeral was timed for two-thirty that afternoon, an appointment that he would now be pressed to make.   Why, oh why had he elected not to drive himself here?  Why, knowing he had not ridden on a bus for thirty years, hadn’t he ignored advice and taken a taxi from the station rank?  So many whys, so much self-reproach; hadn’t Michael always teased him for his inflexible nature?  It was the reason he had not risen in the army as his parents expected he would, the reason his marriage to Kate had stuttered and struggled for years before finally breaking down.

He must be calm.  He must take stock.

Buses, clearly, were not to be trusted.  He decided to walk.

This could become a military exercise; Michael would appreciate that.  Like those days of the advance, yomping across stony desert terrain with a full pack – a sort of half run, rhythmic and persistent, eating up the miles regardless of pain or blazing heat.

The military mind kicked in.  First, he needed to know his present location, and identify the route to St. Mary Magdalene.  The bus had dropped him off near a crossroads, on the corner of which stood a general store.

“Do you have a town map?”  Randall asked.    Then, when he had made the purchase, “Can you show me where we are now, and the whereabouts of St. Mary Magdalene?”

“You are wanting a church?” The shopkeeper seemed a little vague and took care to keep a separation between Randall and himself, but he supplied the answers he thought Randall wanted.

“Thank you!”  Said Randall.  Clarity at last!

Back on the pavement with his directions securely in his head, Randall set off at the peculiar dog-trot his army training had taught.   People stepped aside to allow him through and some passed comments but he neither noticed nor cared; he had a map in his hand and three miles to cover before he reached the church.   Street upon street, feet hurting, heart pounding, sweat pouring, set upon accomplishing his mission, just like the old days – the good days.  He would arrive there in time!

Yet the streets were sometimes roads, the roads lanes or alleys; none of which complied with his map.  So many roads were unnamed in these days, their signs never replaced when the walls that bore them changed, or stolen by enterprising kids with an eye to the car boot sales, or for their personal collections.  He struggled with the map – its print was so small, his eyes grown weaker with the years; nevertheless, on he went in his odd, stumbling run, stride unbroken, up streets and down roads none of which had meaning, with the old panic rising and rising in his heart and the old pain growing at the very centre of his being.

Then suddenly he knew where he was.  Without warning the road where his map had failed to lead him was there, stretched out before him, wide and straight!  The familiarity of the place burned into his eyes, every feature of it memorable and dazzlingly real.  At its distant end, the road terminated before a proud grey church around which the first mourners were gathering.  Randall, his heart uplifted, mustered the last of his energy and began his journey up that final road.  His appointment with Michael would be honoured, the love between them that had always remained unexpressed could be avowed before his friend, his dear, dear friend passed through the gates into eternity.

Why, suddenly, could he go no further?  How did it happen?  What was a road had become a lake, wide, probably deep, certainly beyond his ability to cross.  There was an island in the centre of the lake, standing high above the water, garlanded with layer upon layer of rhododendrons, pink and red.  The church stood at the water’s opposite shore, doors opened wide in invitation, its congregation gathered and elevated in song, yet there was no way to reach it, for the lake was all of a mile to either side of him and almost half as much across.

Defeated, Randall fell to his knees, compelled as he believed to make his last goodbyes from a distance, to utter a prayer unheard by the man he loved.  It was then the boat found him, it was then.

“Let’s go across, then, old man, shall we?  Let’s go and tell him what you’ve kept hidden all these years.”

Everything had changed.  He was sitting on an unyielding wooden seat, and Michael stood before him, wearing a dog collar that identified him as a priest.

“Michael?”

A feminine hand clasped his, and a warm familiar voice melted into his ear.  “Dad, it’s Rosie – I’m here now.  This is Father Clemence, Dad.  He’s not Michael.  I’m sorry Father; he sees people, you know?  From his past, and that.”

“I’m afraid he’s in a bit of a state,” Father Clemence said, “We lack facilities you see. The police wanted to take him to the Care Centre but Randall was so insistent upon coming here – something about a funeral?  He seemed to believe the police car was a boat, for some reason.  He kept talking about crossing a lake.  I wish I had a better understanding of these things.”

“His best friend was called Michael – he knew him from his army days.  Michael was drowned in a boating accident on Hall Park Garden Lake; in Torrenton, you know?”

Randall’s voice was unsteady.  “He keeps telling me Michael was drunk.  He never drank, never!”

“Don’t upset yourself, Dad.  Who keeps saying that?”

“The toothpick man.  Him!”  Randall stabbed at the priest with a wavering finger.  “That’s him!  He was on the bus!”

“This is Father Clemence.”  Rosie soothed.  “It was after they was demobbed, Father.  Michael couldn’t cope with civvy life, could he, Dad?   He was drinking really heavy the night he died.”

“Is that Rosie?  When is Michael’s funeral?  I was told two-thirty at St. Mary Magdalene’s; am I late?”

“Only by about twenty years, Dad.  Michael died a long time ago.  You were right about the date, though, and the time of the funeral; you always seem to manage that.  We’ve been worried sick about you, you know?  Come on, let’s get you home.”

“It’s a long way.  I came on the train.”

“No, Dad, it’s about twenty minutes.  I don’t know how you got here, but it wasn’t by train.”

“I loved Michael.”

“I know, Dad, I know.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

By Force of Arms

I’m a geriatic.  I know the meaning of the word.  So when I see a neo-octogenarian being sworn in as the ‘Leader of the Free World’ you’ll forgive me for feeling a little concerned, especially when the process requires the protection of an entire army.

In many less ‘free’ countries that would be considered a coup.

Joe Biden (78 – and I presume we have more than just his word for that?) now has his finger on the nuclear button.  I hope he manages to stay awake through the special briefing from the military that accompanies that privilege, because it is quite critical,  isn’t it?  He seems to have trouble finding his way to the podium sometimes, and equal difficulty remembering what he came to say when he gets there.  I can totally empathise.  

Simple decisions, like what to have for breakfast, and little memory issues around the last encounter with the car keys become major concerns as our years advance.   More attention needs to be given to plotting the geography of our working days, with particular reference to the availability of armchairs and bathrooms.  Medical assistance needs to be…well, within reach, shall we say?

Should we ever meet, Joe and I, I would be pleased to swop experiences of our comparative medication programmes, because I feel certain there are a number of pitfalls there.  Bisoprolol and Statins are deleterious to concentration, I’ve found.  And one should never be afraid of taking a short nap in the afternoon. Or a long one…

Not that President Trump is much less scrawny an example of spring chickendom; and something other than heroic, in many respects; he cuts an unlikely Che Guevara figure as a potential revolutionary, yet the system has almost certainly reinvented him as such.  There was always the fear that if politicians got their talons into the Internet they would use it to create a monster and that has certainly been a product of the last four years.  The question is, if this is what they can achieve in one term, what will they spawn in the next?  

For me, as an outsider, the politics themselves are of less concern than the collateral damage:  ‘Democracy’ (and god, the futility with which we cling to that word) hinges upon the will of the majority being not just established, but accepted.   Have we seen the last election process in which that can happen?    If opinion can be shaped by fake news, and majorities won by fake counts, if fake issues can generate extreme solutions, what have we left?

Young opinion is shaped by young science, but in all that is new young opinion should be guided by, and not used by, those older and hopefully wiser in the ways of the world. The Media Freeway is a certain friend to those for whom the cynical exploitation of idealistic youth paves a road to success.  Where have the wise heads gone?  If they still exist, why are they too afraid to speak? 

This leaves those of us who still care with some odious decisions on a personal level.  It won’t rock the world if I close my Twitter account, though I may regret it because Twitter was fun, once.  But can I go on contributing, in however small a way, to an organisation that exerts censorship and pursues policies of ‘no platforming’?  Can I ever go to a polling booth again and vote, not wondering how my tiny ‘x’ will be cast?  Is there any source of information, be it news, archive material or simple learned opinion I can still trust?   

In a socialist autocracy, only the red message thrives.   If we must persist in chasing the illusion of ‘Freedom’, we are faced with an ever-steeper climb.  For those of us in the rest of the world, Joe Biden’s inauguration by force of arms is a sad occasion.

The God of the Rocks

They said of him that he would be watching.   They said that from his mountain throne he would see the last of them to their graves, and the world itself would spiral down into infinity, before his eyes could rest.  He brought to them seasons, sun and the rain, and he taught them dread.  Where he wept new waters sprang, and where he vented his fury he sent fire into the sky.  Only in their terror would they pray.  Only when faced with the evidence of his wrath had they reason to fear him.  

They said he was a god.

They worshipped him, beseeched him often, in their times of peril or of pain; sought in vain for his solace, begged fruitlessly before him that he might forgive their sins, even though they could not explain the meaning of sin.  And although they believed they heard his voice, he never answered their prayers.

From his great height among the frozen rocks, his immortal flesh scoured by wind and ice, he was king, at least, of all he surveyed:  his eyes ever open, his ears filled by the knowledge of man; unsleeping, watching the ages pass.   

In his time he was accused of many things, at once feared and admired for his indiscretions.   He took the innocence of a king’s beautiful daughter, they said; came to her disguised by the night in a cloak of swan-down to give her a son who  she would raise to be his intermediary with the people – but no-one saw, or had word of the child.  Time brought rumours of many sons, to whom were accorded the powers of minor gods, and daughters too.   He divided his responsibilities among them, his subjects claimed – for childbirth, for death, for fire and fertility – children unseen, with powers never proved.

Centuries passed and the people prospered.  Their numbers grew.  They lost their fear of their god, spurning the myths of his children and proclaiming their faith to the mountain less often, while they committed greater and greater crimes in his name, and had no understanding of their wrongs.

There were a few, still, who pretended knowledge of him.   They made effigies they insisted were true to his mortal form, they issued decrees they said he had written, and words they said he had spoken. 

Those bold feet that first ascended the high watchtower they believed was his found no trace of his presence among those merciless rocks; so they allowed themselves to laugh, perhaps a little nervously, at their primitive notions of his existence.  The final knell.  But he was watching, just as before.  

 Some claimed He lived within each one of them, others believed Him to rule from somewhere beyond the sky.  Few knew the truth; that his home was where it had always been, beneath their feet – that he was the ground whereon they walked.

Very few truly understood this relationship to man.   They sought his guidance when he had none; prayed for his favour when he could give none, but because they had shaped him into a loving and compassionate image in their own minds they were sure, despite all evidence, he must have an entity that was righteous and just.   

With time he grew tired of the imperfect mortals that moved about him. Their treatment of fauna and flora that served him, the barbs they plunged ever deeper in his flesh, their unnatural agriculture which used chemicals to burn his skin (for his skin was the land).  He recognised signs of diminution in himself; for though with a shrug of his shoulders he might still  send their dwellings tumbling, or charge the air with fire, or foment oceans to tempest, ice into rain,  no-one came to pray to him. 

He was forgotten.

One final card was yet to be played that would prove his power and send  these creatures who could never be true custodians of his world to their destruction.  Why did he withhold?. His impatience with them grew yet he shrugged his shoulders: he did not dispatch them.  They vexed, but they did not infuriate.  Why?   Well, there was still something in his aged world to give him hope.

He had known her presence as she walked by this river before, a girl with pale cheeks and features of untainted innocence; one whose dark blue eyes were filled by the mystery of the waters and whose soul was clear of mortal sin.   She walked with a man, another human, but this did not deter him, for no mortal could withstand the will of a god.   In this girl, his ancient wisdom made him believe, there was a better future for his world; but as  no-one now believed in him, and nor, at first, would she, he must show her the pathway back to truth; she must become mother to the family of a god which, this time, would make itself known.  By an old and tried device of the gods, he reasoned to himself, he might make her his.  He was unaware how his strength had ebbed – without belief a god has no power.  In too many ways as he appeared to this girl and her man who had never prayed, he was almost mortal.   

“I think,”  Nadja said, as she crouched on her heels by the riverbank, reaching to dabble her fingers in the water;  “You should leave the poor fish alone.”

“Do you?”  the young man laughed.  “So you would consign man’s most popularhobby to the dustbin of incorrectness at a stroke, would you?”  He had set himself upon a tussock of grass beside her, his rods and creel clasped between his knees as he baited his hook.

“No, Ben, but I don’t see the point.  You entice them to bite on those horrible barbed things of yours, terrify them by plucking them from their natural element, then rip their mouths apart before you toss them back.  Why?” 

“Fish can’t feel pain.”  Ben shaped to cast his line.

“Are you sure of that?”

“It’s been proven.”

“Not, I take it, by a fish.”  Nadja sighed, because Ben’s blindness to all that was beautiful in the world made her sad.  “Oh, look at the swan, isn’t it beautiful?”

“It’s a bird, a very big one, for a swan.”  The young man’s baited hook zipped over Nadja’s head on its way out into the current.  “If you don’t like fishing, why did you come?”

“I like the river, and I like you.  Is it me, or is he swimming towards us?”

“Maybe it thinks you’ve got some bread for it.  Give it a sandwich.”

“I’m sure you shouldn’t….”   Nadja’s voice faded into silence as she found herself gazing into the eyes of the swan, which were the most thoughtful and visionary eyes she had ever seen.  They were eyes  of intimate knowledge, bearing a message for her alone.   It was all she could do to refrain from walking out into the water to meet it, because the bird’s stare was mesmerising her.  It wanted her to join it, to nestle in the white down of its feathers, to ride upon its snowy back.  Reflected in shimmering perfection upon the water, the noble creature was drifting ever nearer.

“Oh, Ben!”  It was so close to Nadja now she might only stretch a little to touch its head.

“Careful!   It’s certainly hungry,” Ben warned.  “They can attack you for food sometimes.”

Yet Nadja saw no aggression in those eyes, only invitation.  Somehow it was no surprise to her that the swan should lower its noble head and  extend its neck to lie against the length of her thigh.  It breathed its contentment as, with nervous, uncertain hands she stroked feathers so close they were almost velvet.     Nor was she shocked when it raised itself, its wings arching slowly, very gently moving forward.  She rose to her feet, yielding to the persuasion that coaxed her into the warmth of that embrace.  For one moment it seemed she might be completely engulfed in the cloak of those powerful wings.

Only for a moment…

The great bird shuddered as Ben’s creel, swung with all the force he could muster, struck it upon its back.  It turned instantly, hissing anger as Nadja staggered aside.  It swept those wings with no hint of their former gentleness, scything into Ben’s ribs so hard the wind was knocked from his lungs.  Reared upon its grey legs, drawn to its full height the swan loomed over Ben like a white cloud  and eyes which just a moment before were blinded by love were twin orbs of lightning, afire with fury.   Injured and in pain, Ben almost fell as the swan, far from retreating to the river as he expected, advanced upon him.  Clear of the water its body was exposed and Ben, alarmed as he was by its aggression, was not done yet.     Stepping inside those flailing wings he delivered a blow to the creature’s body so fierce it was thrown backward into the water – so fierce as to sink deep into feathers and flesh and bone beneath.  With that single blow the god of the rocks discovered a dreadful truth:  that a god devoid of veneration is no god at all.   His transformation into this great bird had been his final miracle.  He was mortal.

In its panic at that discovery and with its dream of love reduced to a sad fantasy  the bird plunged back into the river, scrabbling through the shallows in search of deeper water, finding depth, swimming fast with no sense of direction.  In its distraction it ran its beak through the healing stream to deaden the hurt in its body.  A temptation, a mere scrap, skipped by on the current.  The swan took it in. 

“It’s taken my hook.”  Ben cried, regaining his balance.   “The bloody thing’s taken my hook!”

“Oh no!  No!  Do something!” Nadja rushed forward, plunging to her waist into the river to reach for the swan.   For a few dreadful seconds the bird churned the water as it discovered its plight and thrashed wildly against the line, then as suddenly as it had been taken it was gone.  Running on the surface on desperate feet it gained the air.   Graceful even when so wounded, its neck crooking as it tried to shake the metal hook free, it ascended,  and all Nadja could do was watch it depart.  She rounded on Ben.  “I could have got to it.  Why didn’t you wait?”

“I cut the line.   I couldn’t hold it, I’d have lost the rod and everything if I’d tried.”

“You let it go.”  Nadja wept bitterly, for she had seen in the space of a second everything the world had missed.  “You condemned it.”

Ben pleaded with her.  He’d had to do something, he told her – he was being attacked.  “It wasn’t my fault it took the line!”

“it was your fault the hook was in the water in the first place.  Your hobby!”  Nadja exclaimed scornfully,  “Don’t follow me!”

She turned from Ben to walk home alone.  As she walked the grass around her feet turned to brown, and young though the year might have been, leaves cascaded from the trees.  The wind grew stronger as a different darkness fell.

#

“Another one?”    Baldai asked.

“The third in this cycle.”  Procator affirmed, as they watched the screen.  “Most regrettable.  It seems this is the critical evolutionary phase.  Statistics for this galaxy are quite damning, I’m afraid.  We’re having some success, but almost entirely with aquatic solutions.  Land-based life forms are simply too fallible.  It’s almost as though the stock is corrupt.”

“That is possible, of course.”  Baldai admitted.  “However, there’s nothing to be done.  Is he recovering?”

“To a point, I suppose.  Avian disguises are particularly difficult to treat, and he had been entombed in river mud for three weeks before we could bring him up.  The physical recovery is good, but…”  Prokator made a gesture of futility;  “his psychological makeup has completely burned out.  He has expressed a wish to retire to his galaxy of origin and I think that is probably best.”

“And that?”  Baldai waved at the image on their screen of the bereft planet:  “What shall we do with that?”

“Oh, dispose of it.  There’s another eligible candidate closer to this sun-star, if you think we should have another try – but I would be inclined to emphasise the oceans, this time.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Photo credits: Swan, by Balog from Pixabay, Featured image:

Mountain, by David Mark from Pixabay