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The concluding part of the story,….

Okay, that wasn’t too bad. The car goes like a rocket, doesn’t it? A little wild on the corners by modern standards, but plenty of kick! Anyway, here we are, just pulling into a space on Menses Park Terrace. The college is over there, and Menses Park is to our right. We’ve still an hour to kill, so I thought we’d take a look in the park because I’ve not been in there for ages and, well, the place is kind of special to me, for a number of reasons.

I’d forgotten how green this part of town is, all cherry trees and wide open spaces. It’s just a stone’s throw, and yet a million miles away from the bustle of the centre. And here,… see? Isn’t this a pretty park? Look at the lawns, and the colourful borders. You won’t find parks like this anywhere else in the world – it’s so English, so Victorian. See the bandstand? The ornamental lake? This is where I come at lunchtimes when the weather’s good. It gets me out of college, gives me somewhere quiet to be on my own and lick my wounds.

If you don’t mind we’ll just sit here on this bench for a bit. We’ve been lucky with the weather eh? Today’s exactly as I remember it: warm, and the scent of fresh cut grass. But it was always a pleasure tainted by the perpetual loneliness of being in love, and always disappointed by the reality of love’s apparent indifference to me. Still,… no need to dwell on that now: I’ll soon be seeing Serena again. She’ll be sitting beside me in the car, and I’ll take her to that little pub. We’ll talk over a decent meal and get to know one another,… we’ll feel so grown up and sophisticated – then I’ll bring her home and drop her on her doorstep and say: it was fun, wasn’t it? I really enjoyed being with you. And she’ll blush and maybe give me her number and we’ll arrange to do it again sometime soon.

What’s that? I said: We’ll arrange to,… what are you looking at? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,….

Woah!

Didn’t I tell you Faye was a looker? Crikey, I’d forgotten she used to wear her dresses as short as that! That’s her bench over there you see? Didn’t I tell you? This is where we first met. This is what I wanted to show you, just for completeness really, though it’s a while yet before our time comes, and I wasn’t expecting to see her today. She was sitting over there, reading Wuthering Heights. I was going through a bit of a Bronte phase myself and was reading The Tennant of Wildfell Hall – made a change from Newton’s Laws, and Mhor’s Circle.

Anyway, even from a distance we couldn’t help but notice one another’s books and we made a joke about swapping them when we’d finished. It was said light heartedly but – you know how these things work – I looked out for her every time I was in town after that, and in the end we did exchange books. Her telephone number was written on the very first page and the rest, as they say is history,… or rather my future.

Look at her legs as she sits down, and crosses them. Aren’t they sexy? You can nearly see her stocking-tops! And the way she dangles her shoe on the end of her toes like that! Oh,… but she looks so pretty,…. so young and absolutely devastating! I don’t mind telling you I feel a bit awkward now, sitting here, knowing I’m about to be going off with someone else shortly, and maybe you think it’s wrong, but you’re forgetting: Faye doesn’t know me yet and it would complicate things if I were to do what you seem to be urging me to do, and take my copy of Wildfell Hall out of my bag – yes I know it’s in there – I’ve seen it too. Oh, Faye: red high heels, big bushy hair, a slash of red lip-gloss, electric blue eye-shadow. How I used to ache for you! Where did you go, my love? What happened to you? What happened to us? Do we really change so much as we age – or are we the same, and we just forget who we are?

Okay, maybe we should move on. I’m beginning to feel really strange now, like I’m going to wake up. Talk to me will you. Say something. Why do you have to be so flipping quiet all the time? Oh,… I think it’s too late,… we’re slipping free,…. no sense in fighting it; once we start to slide there’s nothing we can do to stop it,… here we go.

Damn!

Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault. I think it was seeing Faye that did it. I wasn’t expecting that at all. Let me come round for a moment, then we’ll go back into the house and check on her. Does everything look as it should to you? I mean the shed. I could swear there was something,… oh never mind,… I think the tea was a little too strong. Do you have a funny taste in your mouth? Yak!

So, anyway, here we are. The house is all quiet. We’ve been away a bit longer than I expected and everything’s in darkness. There’s just a light showing under the lounge door, and I can hear the TV, so I don’t think I’ve been missed, but I’m feeling guilty about the Serena thing, so I’ll salve my conscience by asking Faye if there’s anything I can do. It’s a little weak I know and she’ll suspect me at once of something underhand but, really, seeing her as she used to be has reminded me of what it was that drew me to her in the first place. She was every bit as pretty as Serena – I’d forgotten that – but there was something else,… and I’m really glad I woke up in time before I had the chance to disgrace myself. Anyway, here we are:

“Faye,… I was just,…”

Okay.

You’ll have to excuse me for a moment while I think about this.

Yes,… I can see it’s not Faye. But who?…. Oh, I get it – It’s Serena of course! Nice one! She’s padded out a little, and there are lines around her eyes – not unattractive, I might add. Its more her expression that’s so shocking – the same dull, deadness – just like Faye: those lifeless eyes reflecting nothing but the crap she’s watching on TV. So,… I take it we’ve slipped forwards, not to our old future, but to our new one?

Fine, just so long as I know where I am!

On the up-side, it seems our courtship went well and we’ve managed to share a life together, but on the down-side, unlike my life with Faye, I’ve obviously not had the pleasure of remembering the best bits of it. I’ve gone straight from that tingling anticipation of our first date, to surfacing directly here into the featureless plain of our later years, a time when it’s all been said and done, and we can barely be bothered looking at each other any more.

“Serena?”

She’s barely aware of us,… fortunately, the TV is on so loud she didn’t hear me calling her Faye.

“Serena, can I get you anything?”

She waves her hand dismissively. Clearly I’m disturbing her and I suspect we’d be as well retreating back into the kitchen.

Now, given the rather shop-worn outcome of both these relationships, I agree it seems I’m most likely the one at fault here, since I’m the common denominator in them both. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that though. I mean I could do the decent thing while I’m here and try to perk things up with Serena, but since I don’t remember anything of our relationship, I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that without her knowing something’s wrong, and maybe making things even worse.

So that leaves me wondering about your part in all of this, and how we seemed to bump into each other at that particular time and place. And you must forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m thinking it’s you who’s been married to Serena all this time, that this is your future, and that maybe lately you’ve been haunted by memories of a woman sitting on a park bench flashing her stocking tops, and reading Wuthering Heights? A woman who caught your eye and smiled at you as you were waiting to go out on your first date with Serena perhaps?

Okay. Fine. Well, I trust that, like me, you know what it was now that you really left back there in ’83, and now we’ve found it we can both avoid screwing up our lives any further. It was really weird bumping into you again, and you understand if I hesitate to suggest we do this sort of thing more often? For now, I’d be obliged if you’d just put the kettle on and hand me your almanac. With a bit of luck the moon’s not moved too far away from the ecliptic,…

….and Faye’s still sitting on that park bench.

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Still with me after part one? Much appreciated. Let’s see where this goes. So,…

We’ve skipped ahead a little now, consulted our almanac, and there’s a full moon on the ecliptic this evening. I’ve checked the earth’s geomagnetic signature on the Internet and sure enough, it’s been plummeting for days, so now’s our chance. I’ve tickled round the garden with a hoe, tidied up the borders and mown the grass, which ought to keep Faye off our backs for a while. If you think you’re ready, come down to the shed, and I’ll boil us up an infusion of hedgerow clippings. Take a seat, make yourself comfortable – go on – settle back.

Here we go,….

There! see how easy it is? We’ve slipped back to ’83 without much trouble. The only problem is we’ve missed the best bit and we’re already half way through Dodman’s lecture. Mhor’s Circle is up on the blackboard, which means Serena’s long gone. That’s a bit of a drag, but maybe you’re right and trying to cop off with a dream-girl from my past is like trying to run before I can walk. So, maybe I should start with something simple like,… I don’t know,… how about if I just,…. stood up?

Okay! That seemed to work. Here we are, standing up in the middle of Dodman’s lecture on Mhor’s Circle. Weird! It seems we’ve just created another future because Dodman, interrupted mid-sentence, is now looking at us over his spectacles in a way he never did in our original past, at least not at this place and time.

“Yes?” he asks.

He’s a pleasant chap, old Dodman, and we’ve no need to fear his wrath, but all the same it’s an embarrassing situation and I’ve no idea what to do next. To be honest I didn’t expect things to be as easy as this.

“Em,…”

“Is everything all right, young man?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Dodman. I think,… perhaps,.. I need,… to excuse myself.”

I could just have sat down again and maybe time would have flowed back into its normal course, but, really, this is too interesting a thing to let it go just yet. So, we’re outside the room now, breathing hard, sweating like we’re sick and shoving our college notes back into our bag. What now you ask? Well follow me and I’ll show you.

I’m of an age when I can look back fondly on the 80’s, and even though it doesn’t seem that long ago to me, the fashions, the styles, the cars,… when I see these things in movies or pictures from that period, they conjure up a feeling of such nostalgia it’s like I’m sure I misplaced something back here that was really important to me. I’m also sure I know what, or rather who it is:

We’re talking about Serena, of course!

The girls were mostly into big fluffy hair, and shoulder pads in those days. I remember it as a very glamorous, sexy and confident time. As for my car – I drove an RS 2000, painted a gloriously unsubtle shade of yellow. It had alloy wheels, fat tyres and a Cosworth engine. If I’m right I’ve left it parked around Avondale Road, where it’s all quiet and residential, and where the parking’s free. But that’s for later. For now though, I’ve just remembered a coffee shop in the old Market Hall which is nearer, so we’ll check that out first.

Okay, here we are. I know it’s not much of a place but the coffee’s really good, and is very straight forward to order – just coffee – none of the endless choice that’s supposed to be the mark of a sophisticated free-market society. It’s pretty busy, it being market day, you see? But if you follow me quickly there’s a table just over there. We can hunker down, sip our coffee and try to work out what to do next.

Excuse me,… coming through!….

Wow, did you see that girl? She looked like a movie star! I used to sneer at all this glam stuff – plastic people I used to call them – but now I really miss it! By the way, if you don’t mind my saying so you seem to know your way around here pretty well.

Anyway, where were we?

Oh,… hold on. Something really strange has just happened. Serena’s walked in. She’s over there, ordering coffee from the counter – baggy striped sweater and jeans, big satchel. Isn’t she gorgeous? Do you see the provocative tilt of her hips? Oh,… now she’s looking for somewhere to sit. Ever heard of a synchronicity? Well you’re in one. We shouldn’t get too excited though because, considering the way she last looked at me, I’ll be lucky to get a smile out of her this time. Still,… she can’t find a seat, and we’ve got this whole table to ourselves.

I wonder,… Okay, she’s looked our way now and I’m sure she’s recognised me. I can read her mind: she’s thinking she can either beg a corner of that table with those old dears by the window, or she can come and sit with me. If she’s kind hearted, she’ll know I’ll be hurt if she chooses the old dears, but I don’t want her to be uncomfortable either. And I don’t want her to feel sorry for me. I just want her to want me.

Right, she’s coming over! You’d better slip off into the background, while I deal with it. No,.. don’t go too far; I don’t mind you listening in and, anyway, I may need your help if I get into trouble.

“Hi,” she’s saying. “Do you mind if I join you?”

“Of course not.”

I can feel myself tingling now, like she’s emitting a force field and it’s exciting every particle of me. Once again there’s that startling awareness of every detail of her, and she looks so cute and cuddly in her sweater. Surely, no matter how long I live, I will never desire anyone as completely as I desire Serena at this moment. No,… I’m not talking about sex here; it’s more that I can’t remember a time when I’ve ever wanted just to be,… with anyone so much as this. But I’m confused because, of course, this moment never happened. If this truly is, or was, my past, then it’s following a different track now.

And that’s progress.

Isn’t it?

Serena’s nervous. She can read my thoughts, she sees the desire in my eyes, and she doesn’t want any embarrassment. She just wants to sit and drink her coffee without some hormone-inebriated youth making a pass at her.

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “You’ve nothing to worry about.”

Now it’s her turn to be confused. “Oh?”

“I’m not really here, you see?”

She smiles. She has a lively sense of humour and thinks perhaps I’m joking with her – thinks perhaps she’s misjudged me, been too hasty in setting a distance between us.

“Really?” she asks. She has the most beautiful dimples, and those lips? Do you see those lips – how wide her smile, how white her teeth?

“It’s true,” I’m telling her. “I’m actually sitting in my shed some time maybe twenty five years from now, thinking back on this moment.”

She takes a sip of her coffee, and I can see her running this one through her mind, her eyes making little oscillations while she weighs me up. She could easily think I’m a wierdo and recoil, but instead she tiptoes politely into my joke, and now she’s asking me: “So, what’s it like then: twenty five years from now?”

And of course I want to say something corny like: “All the poorer for not having you in it, Serena,” but that would be lame and this is a joke, after all, so I’ll have to say something light and smart and say it soon, or it’ll ruin the moment.

But what is it like, twenty five years from now? Do I say the world’s economy has collapsed, that the financial institutions these stripey shirted, brace twanging proto-tycoons are constructing around now will turn out to have been nothing more than a sophisticated con-trick? No,… too downbeat. But then I remember I was not particularly happy here in the ’80’s either – sure I wasn’t sinking in a sea of mortgage hell and torpedoed investments, but what I was, was forever falling in love with a long string of women, none of whom ever knew my name, which from where I’m sitting now, back in ’83, suddenly seems a whole lot worse than looking at my building society statement twenty five years from now and thinking: shite!

But she’s waiting – the moment sliding away and if you want to make a decent joke, of course timing is everything. I give her a smile, as warm as I can muster, and then I hear myself, like some ham actor from a ’40’s movie say in clipped English tones: “It’s all terribly dull I’m afraid.”

I’m a hit: she’s laughing now and my heart is swelling. How I wish I could simply hold this moment than have to take things any further, but the times are holding on to me, and it seems each moment from now will be whatever I choose to make of it.

“You’re a nutter,” she says, but flicks me a smile and a coy look that I take as permission to proceed – but carefully.

“Shouldn’t you be in class?” I ask.

“Study period,” she replies. “What’s your excuse?”

“Me? I’m meddling with the nature of space and time.”

But this raises barely a grin – too pretentious. Must keep it real! “Well,… seriously, I’ve attended this lecture so often I know it by heart.”

“Lucky you.”

“What time are you in college ’till?”

She pauses before replying. I’m being too obvious now but my gambit is rewarded by that coy look again. “Four,” she replies. “You?”

“I’m here ’till nine.”

“Nine?”

“I’m a day release student,” I explain. “We get twelve hours of lectures a week – all on the same day unfortunately.”

“Ah,… then you have a job?”

“Yes. I’m an engineer.” I might have said ‘designer’, but I’m worried she’ll think I mean fashion or something. But what’s this? She’s interested: she’s lifting her chin, fastening her eyes a little more steadily upon me.

“Reeeaaaally?”

Now, it’s not that engineering’s a sexy kind of job – it’s more that just having a job at all makes me seem a little more mature than your everyday college boy. I earn real money, while the guys she’s been out with so far have most likely all been full time students and dirt poor. Sure,… this is what she’s thinking – trust me. Now, I’m not exactly a rich man, but I can afford to spend money on her, and every woman likes to be made to feel she’s worth a million dollars – it doesn’t make her shallow. Anyway, that’s the female side of the equation. As for the male: one side of my head may be pushing fifty – which is the side that’s thinking straight, thinking ahead, and urging caution, but the other side is twenty three and thinking very little, except how much I want to show her the car, or preferably get her into it. I’m young you see and I want to wave my bright yellow, two litre metaphorical willy at her.

“Do you need a ride home?”

She shakes her head and I cringe inwardly. That was too much, too clumsy, but I note she’s careful not to push me so far away. “I mean I don’t know you, do I?” she says.

“True. True,…”

“Anyway,” she goes on, teasing. “If you don’t get off ’till nine how can you?”

“I’ll probably skip the rest of today,” I tell her. “What I really want to do,…” I mean if I blow it here, I’m thinking, “is take the car for a blast over the moors – there’s a little pub I know. Cosy. Good restaurant. I’ll probably hang about up there for the evening.”

“Sounds nice.” I can see her balancing the potential of my rather subtle invitation against the risks of being stranded in the wilds with a psychopath. “Well,…. I see you often enough in the refectory at lunchtimes,” she calculates. “So, I sort of know you already, a little.”

“Yes,… you do.”

“I don’t need a ride home though – I only live five minutes away.”

“Right. That’s very,… convenient.” My how this girl likes to tease!

Is she inviting me back to her place, then? No – don’t be an idiot. Her place will probably include a mum, a dad and an annoying little sister.

What do I do? Time is ticking. Her hands are curled around her coffee cup, her arms flat upon the table and I see her turning her wrist a fraction so she can tell the time. She’s so lovely, so perfect,… but I fear I’m losing her now.

“Study period almost over?” I ask.

She nods, and though she does not smile, there is a look in her eyes that betrays her pleasure in the time we have spent together.

“Sorry,” she says. “I don’t mean to be rude.”

Our eyes are lowered a fraction. She’s waiting to see what I’ll do: if I’ll try to blurt in a last desperate pass. She’s perhaps hoping I won’t, but being terribly polite in giving me the opportunity to embarrass myself. “Well,…” I say. “Maybe you’ll let me buy you coffee next time.”

She’s surprised by this. It gives her the easy way out, the chance to smile and say “maybe”, and retreat with both our dignities intact, also the chance of a follow up if she feels like it, or the chance to avoid me if she doesn’t. Really, I wish I’d had this much sense when I was younger, instead of being so damned gauche and backing girls into corners all the time.

“Well,…” she’s saying. “If you happened to be parked down Menses Park Terrace, say just after four,… you never know,… we might bump into each other again.”

And if I’m not mistaken I think I’ve just scored.

“You never know,” I tell her. “And maybe if you were passing, I could ask if you fancied joining me for a meal,… at that pub?”

“And maybe I’d like that,” she says.

She’s in a hurry now, drains her coffee, and with a last look at her watch, pushes back her chair, flashes me a smile, and says it was nice talking to me. I nod dreamily, and she’s gone before I have time to ruin the moment by saying something stupid.

Well, come on then! There’s no time to waste. We’d better pay up, and get out of here. I know we’ve hours to kill before four o’clock, but I remember it was always murder parking down Menses Park Terrace, and we’ll probably have to circle a bit before we find a spare slot. I don’t want to leave anything to chance, you see, and it’ll give us an opportunity to get a feel for the car again. And maybe,… sure,… while we’re there, there’s somewhere else I’d like to show you.

To be concluded tomorrow,….

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Blowing the dust off some old short fictions with a thought for getting back into the craft. I’ll be putting this one up in daily instalments. Each one is a five to ten minute read, so hopefully I can hook you early on. It’s about young love, old love and time travel. What’s not to like? So,…

I haven’t been to Wigan for ages, not since the ’80’s, in fact, and I can’t say for sure we’re really here now, except it seems pretty much that way to me. If I’m correct, it’s a Thursday, just after lunch, and we’re standing in a huddle of people waiting to go inside the old technical college on Parson’s Walk, but there’s been a fire alarm, and it’s chaos. It’s no hardship, though, because the sun is shining, and every second I spend out here is a second less I’ll have to spend in class.

Okay,… so, here we are; this is the interesting bit: there’s a girl looking at me, smiling. Do you see her? That’s Serena, and I’ve been in love with her for a long time. Her smile is heart-warming, it’s also completely unexpected because, until this moment, I’d not been aware of her having taken much notice of me. Clearly though, she is aware of me; dare I say she even seems to like me?

The crowd fades into the background and all I can see is her, except “see” isn’t the right word. Yes, I can see every freckle, every individual eyelash, but I can also feel the texture of her skin, her clothes, her hair,… and though she’s twenty feet away, and just one person in the midst of so many others, I’m aware even of the warm-womanly scent of her.

Emboldened by that smile I take a step closer, but the smile fades as if she’s read my thoughts, and is wondering how to avoid the embarrassment of my making an unwelcome pass at her. See? She’s gone now, swallowed by the crowd whose din fills my ears as the fire alarm is ended, and we all make our way towards the doors. I always was a bit of a klutz when it came to women.

Here we are then, shuffling along corridors, heading for my Materials’ Science lecture, which I warn you is going to be a couple of hours of grinding tedium, but you’re lucky because from my perspective things are made all the more unbearable by the ache in my heart, and the knowledge it might be weeks before I ever come that close to Serena again.

I’ve done this a few times now, slipped back to this moment, and what I’d really like to do is slow things down, savour the best bits, the glow of that smile for instance, and then pull out of it before this crushing disappointment kicks in, and I’m once more sitting listening to old Dodman explaining about Mhor’s Circle. I might have found a way of slipping back in time, but once I’m here, time ticks along at its normal pace, and I’m unable to control how long we remain, though boredom usually kills it and sends you right back to whatever time you came from.

It’s curious, these trips to what I suppose must be the early summer of 1983, and my final year of the old HNC course in Mechanical and Production Engineering. It’s curious, because although I am myself, as I believe I was back then, my heart heavy with the bitter sweetness of an unrequited love, there is also superimposed upon my memory the knowledge that for our entire lives, Serena and I will never say anything more than an awkward “hello”, that we’ll marry other people, have kids, and live our lives in complete ignorance of one another.

Now, don’t go thinking I regret the way things turned out for me, because I don’t – well, not exactly. This moment may be charged with a deliciously poignant nostalgia, but I could just as easily have revisited any number of similar moments from around that period. Indeed a few months from now I’ll meet a delightfully feisty girl who won’t disappear every time I try to say hello. On the contrary: she’ll take me to her bed at the first opportunity and keep me there – that is until we both wake up, a quarter of a century later, too middle aged and kid-tired for that sort of thing any more.

Nowadays she prefers watching TV and grumbles when I forget to take the rubbish out. Well, that’s middle age for you, and you either grow up, grow into it, accept its imperfections, its disappointments, and grow old grumbling at someone, or you ruin yourself on a mad fling with a girl half your age that you know won’t last, and then you grow old and alone, with only the walls to grumble at.

In the absence of any other alternatives, I know which of the two I prefer. But what if there was a third alternative? What if that mad fling were to take place in another time and place, dare I say even a different universe altogether? Then you could have your fun and it wouldn’t matter would it? And then what if it wasn’t a mad fling or a bit of fun at all? What if it turned out to be the single most important thing you never did?

Old Dodman’s lecture on Mhor’s Circle seems to do the trick – don’t misunderstand, this is technically interesting and professionally important stuff for me, first time around. It’s just the boredom of its frequent repetition I suppose, that has me resurfacing, safe and sound, in the shed at the bottom of my garden.

The light’s melting into amber over the messy backs of all the red brick terraces of my street. I can see a multitude of chimney pots, a tangle of drainpipes and a mad assortment of larch-lap fencing in various degrees of disrepair. It’s not exactly the most likely setting for an experiment into the nature of time and reality, but then I’m not sure there’s much of a precedent for this sort of thing.

Faye thinks I’m potting up Bizzie Lizzies – at least in so far as I imagine she thinks about me at all these days, and to be safe I have potted a few, but mostly I’ve just been sitting here in this old armchair, among the dust and the cobwebs, well,… daydreaming really. Except, as you’ve just seen, there’s more to it than that. So, maybe you’re wondering if it really is possible, to slip back in time, court girls, and have sex with all that sweet simplicity like you used to, and just,… be so damned young again!

Well, trust me, it’s possible all right, to go back and experience your past again. I’ll show you how in a moment, but I’m warning you, you can only amuse yourself so much with that kind of thing before you start to wonder how you might go about making some changes while you’re there. I see you hesitate? You’re worried about going back and, by changing something insignificant, ruining your present, or maybe even blotting it out altogether?

Don’t worry. That’s day one on the time traveller’s course, and if you don’t mind my saying so, that theory’s a bit dated now – I mean all those rational paradoxes the usual smart-Alec naysayers throw at you. No, trust me, if you change something in your past, you don’t change your present at all – you simply create another version of it. Setting aside all the philosophical musings for a while, there really seems no harm in it, provided you can always get back to where you started from, of course, and as we’ve just seen, all that takes is moment or two of boredom.

So, it turns out the business of time-travel is actually a lot easier then than you’ve been led to believe, provided you’re only interested in going backwards of course. Sure, it turns out the most effective time machine’s not a machine at all, it’s simply the mind, whatever that is, helped along by nothing more complicated than some herbal tea, and the right phase of the moon.

The phase of the moon, you ask?

Perhaps I should explain. At certain times of the month, your mind is less securely fastened down inside your brain. This has to do with the earth’s magnetic field, which forms a sheath of energy around the planet called the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere gets a regular kick from the Sun’s magnetic field, which generally keeps the magnetosphere lively, which in turn stimulates our brains through the pineal gland. What’s that? Well, it’s basically a magnetic sensor wrapped in nerve fibres.

With me so far?

Much of the pineal gland’s function is a mystery, but one of the things it does is keep our sense of self too busy to think of leaking outside of our brains to somewhere more interesting. Once a month though, just before Full Moon, the earth’s magnetic field hushes down a little and then, if your mind’s calm enough, it can slip into a state of dissociation, where any memories that happen by are rendered in ultra-realistic detail.

Okay, so, maybe now you’re thinking this isn’t really time-travel after all. It’s more simply a kind of hallucination? You might have a point, but how about this: if you can trigger a memory, like we just did, then amplify it to such an extent you experience everything, exactly as it was: sights, sounds, touch, smell, and the feel of it all, a feel so overwhelming it entirely blocks out the sense of your present self, well, what difference is there between that and reality, other than the passage of a few decades?

Okay, it’s cold sitting in the shed. Come into the house for a bit and warm up. Let’s try the lounge. Yes,… just as I thought: that’s Faye, reclining on the sofa, dropping bits of chocolate into her mouth, while she gawps rather unattractively at the TV. I’m sure you’ll agree she’s not a bad looking woman, and there was once a time when she was very sweet indeed, very energetic in her loving, only now I get the impression she isn’t really much of anything other than this dull automaton, with all the life squeezed out of her. And to be perfectly fair, she probably feels the same way about me – and not without justification.

Now, Faye and I will never split up. I mean we might have outgrown the idealistic stage when we both believed we had the power to make each other deliriously happy, all the time. And though we may be past all that, we’re far too polite and conventional to do anything so drastic as making each other deliberately unhappy, for example by having the bad manners to take off with someone else. We’re companionable enough, most of the time, but anyone can see there’s something,… well,… missing.

There’s no sense in disturbing her just now, so lets sneak back into the kitchen and check on the herb tea situation. Did I mention the herb tea? Look – I keep it all here in this cupboard where its cool. I get it from the hedgerows, dry it out slowly over the summer, then crush it in the usual way, soak it, drain it. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you there’s plenty of stuff growing in those hedgerows that will kill you, and make a pretty long and nasty job of it too, so you need to know what you’re doing. What’s that? You’re already familiar with this kind of thing? Well that’s fine. I suppose you must be, or we wouldn’t have met outside the college the way we did, or when we did for that matter.

But, tell me, do you also know about the ecliptic? No? Then allow me to explain, because a knowledge of the ecliptic might be just the thing you’re looking for to enhance your experience. You see, there’s something else about the moon you need to know. Over the course of a month it goes from rising south of east, to rising north of east, and then back again. When it’s half way, that is when it’s rising due east, it’s said to be over the ecliptic. When the moon’s at this point, more often than not, the earth’s magnetic field is once more a little quieter – like a with a full moon. So, if you want to skip back in time, you’re better doing it either with a full moon, or with a moon over the ecliptic. Got it? If you check your almanac you’ll see this gives you three or four chances a month. Okay? With me so far? Ah,… I see I’ve sparked your interest now. You’re intelligent and already making the connections: you’re wondering will happen when the moon’s full and over the ecliptic at the same time?

Well, you’re on the right lines. A full moon on the ecliptic only happens about twice a year, and I agree with you, that might be just the time to slip back in time if you wanted to do something other than simply experience your past, and instead see about making some changes while you were there. That’s what I plan on doing next time. Next time, I’m going to try a little harder with Serena, instead of being so damned passive about it. After all, you don’t create a fresh future for yourself by being timid in your past, do you?

To be continued tomorrow,…

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She was waiting by the shop, dropped into the car without a word, and turned her head half away from me, like in the old days, as if to discourage conversation. Not a good start, you might say. I preferred to think it was just her way – a little haughty, and ever so “cool”. The main thing is she was here, in my car, filling it with her scent, and with the mysterious tingle of her womanly being. She wore this crazy-short skirt. And I mean short, so it showed the tops of her stockings. She turned the radio on, found something with a beat and cranked the volume up.

There were two of me that night. There was the me who’d skipped after Lorraine to the bus stop when we were kids. Him, that kid, he was in the driving seat, carried away in the heat and the excitement of her presence. Then there was the other me, the guy who could only look on in a kind of stupefied horror, while this idiot got to work. This was the me who wore the jacket and tie of a white collar job, thought it smart and respectful attire for dating a girl, while everyone else turned out that night as New Romantics, Goths or Emos, all of them in search of this thing called “cool”.

We didn’t see a movie. She changed her mind, wanted a drink in a place well known in those days as a venue for plastic people who’d turn up and pose at one another. The music was loud, which made talking tiresome, everyone just nodding to the beat and looking glum. As for Lorraine, she was with me, but not with me. I was more the anchor around which she floated, while she showed herself off to the rest of the room. The only time she acknowledged my presence was when she tugged off my tie, and she didn’t look too pleased about it. I obviously hadn’t a clue how to be cool, and I’d better get with it.

Then it was on to a club – the only club in town actually – a dive, infamous for broken glass and drugs. I’d never been in before, but the bouncer seemed to know Lorraine and nodded us through. I recognized him as one of the bully-boys from school who nabbed my lunch money, but he didn’t know me now. Had the years changed me so much then?

Inside it was more loud music, and a wall of gyrating bodies. After a couple of drinks, Lorraine too was becoming more animated. I wasn’t drinking on account of driving. Sure, I could have done with loosening up a bit, but it gave me a clarity of vision I suppose everyone else lacked that night.

At some point she hooked up with a bunch of girls she knew, and they took to the dance-floor. I’d already made myself look un-cool over the tie business, indeed seemed unable to find my “cool” anywhere, and I didn’t want to make things worse by attempting to dance. So I propped up the bar, drank fizzy water, and then the God of Men broke through my thick skull, and woke me up.

There were pills circulating. Who knows what they were in those days? The kids probably had kid names for them, like they still do. I suppose you could only dance like that if you were off your head on something, everyone so completely gone. Was this what “cool” looked like, then? I wondered. If so, it looked disturbingly nihilistic, and certainly not pointing to any future I aspired to. Or more likely I just didn’t get it, and the notion of “cool” was beyond my small-town comprehension.

Sometimes, Lorraine would flick me a smile, but mostly she stuck to her mates, whom I guess she’d intended hooking up with all along, but with the added kudos of some guy in tow and what I had begun to uncharitably suspect was simply a ride home whenever she needed it. That smile was definitely an improvement in our relationship, but I reckon that was only because she was by now as stoned as everyone else, and she couldn’t tell me apart from all the other guys she was flirting with.

It was small-hours late when we spilled out. She was unsteady on her heels and giggly. It was the first sign I’d had she’d hit a point of happiness. But it had taken copious quantities of alcohol, and whatever pills she’d been washing down with it to get her there. Whatever this “cool” was, it was a hard task-master, and demanded a heavy price the morning after. I wondered what her mother would make of it when I dropped her off back home, if she’d blame me for not looking after her better. But that was real old-school thinking, and those days were already long gone. Anyway, Lorraine wasn’t done yet. When we sank into the car, she took my hand, clamped it between her thighs and stuck her tongue down my throat. She tasted of booze, and her perfume, so alluring to begin, had soured now with the cling of cigarettes.

“Let’s go somewhere,” she said.

She meant a dark country lane, and the back seat. But it wasn’t really her speaking. It was whoever took a hold of her when she was in this state. Still, the younger me might have gone for it, not seen what this other person wanted was simply “it”, and not necessarily me also, and worse, when the real Lorraine reappeared next morning, she’d either not remember a thing, or she’d be cringing with regrets.

I was entirely in the hands of that God of Men now, and I fear he’d not done such a good job up to now. Or was it that the God of Women was the more powerful, and I’d been unable to hear him above the noise of all that loud music? Anyway, he had me driving round on the pretence of knowing the perfect spot for such a desperate tryst. Just stall her, mate, he was saying, while you think this through.

Think? I couldn’t think. I was feeling the future shaking apart, and I was terrified of going too far with a girl who was sexy as hell, but seemed of a sudden darkly strange, and in exchange for what? For more nights like this? Is this what the world of Lorraine looked like? Was this “cool”? Then the fates intervened, as I realized of course they’d been intervening between us all our lives. The God of Men clanged the gates shut with her behind them, and me safe on the other side again. She fell asleep, woke as I stopped the car outside her mother’s, then she threw up all over her dress, stocking-tops and all. I would rather have spared her that last indignity, but the God of Men knew me better, knew nothing less than a serious sobering up was in order. And it worked.

So,…

“You’re looking a bit peaky, Mike. You okay?”

I’d just finished my second strong shot of coffee, and was already in danger of being not the best of company for Chloe. But she was bright, chatty as always, and I was starting to perk up, feeling better for being with her.

“I’m okay, just slept a bit funny, that’s all.”

That’s the only time I’ve ever lied to her, and we’ve been together now for thirty five years. We’ve seen children and grandchildren into the world, and by the grace of God we’ve dodged the worst of ill health and misfortune. We shared her flat for a while, were lovers from day one. Then we bought a house on the outskirts of town, fixed it up, and tended the garden. It’s been a happy sort of place, and we’ve never felt the need to move on from it. More recently, I got promoted a little beyond where I was comfortable, rode it out as long as I could, then took early retirement. Chloe had been working part-time since the kids were born, and now she’s done the same.

Next time you’re out, and you see a late middle aged couple, still smiling in one another’s company, that’s us. We’re still taking trips to the seaside with a flask of coffee and a blanket to sit upon, still reading and sharing books. Kind of twee, isn’t it? Certainly it’s quite ordinary, yet how little my life would have been without it. The thing is, I could have thrown it away that night with Lorraine, because I’m not the brightest when it comes to women, indeed I’m as easily seduced as the next man by the flash of a stocking-top.

Everyone has a love story to tell. Mine says we shouldn’t want to change ourselves when a girl comes along and makes us feel like shit. But when a girl makes you feel good just for being yourself, then you should take notice because she might just mean it. And if she’s genuine, she’s not the kind you chase with your eyes full of moon. You don’t need to. She just turns up one day, and it’s like you knew her in a past life or something, and you’re simply picking up again from where you left off last time around.

As for Lorraine, I never saw her again. When her mother passed, she took over the shop. For years then, she wore her mother’s blue house-coat, and an odd, tired little smile that seemed to say she knew things others did not. But I reckon some things we’re more at the mercy of than are worth the knowing, and the best we can hope for is we’ll grow out of them before they do us harm. I was afraid that was to be the story of her life, from the queen of cool to a corner shop and hair curlers. But then she sold up some time around the millennium, shipped out to Ibiza for all that party culture, and with a guy half her age in tow. She would have been in her forties then, good-looking. I’d like to think by then she knew the shape of what “cool” was, exactly.

And I like to think she found it.

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Now the thing with Chloe is I’d known her for years, but without realizing I knew her. She was one of the secretaries at the factory, a chatty girl, and ever so friendly. She’d talk to me, soak me dry actually, but she was like that with everyone, and I never thought anything about it. Neither, I’m sure, did she. I’d read novels in the lunch hours – quaint, I know, but this was before the invention of smartphones. She’d ask me what I was reading, ask to borrow the book when I was done with it, then she’d read it and talk to me about the story, and the characters like they were people we both knew. What did I think when he said this and when she said that?. I swear, Chloe found out more about me than I knew about myself during those chats, and all without either of us knowing she was doing it.

I was driving out one lunchtime to buy a wedding gift for a colleague’s upcoming nuptials. She came tapping on the glass saying she’d ride with me. She’d pick out a suitable card, she said, and was I going to the reception? And did I want to sit on the same table as her and her mates?

“Aw, go on, Mike. We’ll look after you.”

We got stuck in traffic on the way back, sneaked in late. Everyone saw of course, assumed we’d been up to something, and took no end of pleasure in teasing us about it. Is that what planted the seed in us? I don’t know. She was just easy to be around, and I swear neither of us thought about it until then, but something had changed. Whenever she came over to talk now, there seemed to be a heat in her, and I could feel it soaking through my bones.

She was renting a flat, but it was stretching her salary. She’d invited a mate to share with her, but it had fallen through. There was something both casual and pointed in the way she told me this, definitely a hint in it, I thought. I wondered how we’d moved on to the point of nearly moving in together, when you couldn’t even say we were going out. I’m not saying she was suggesting we’d be sharing like that, you know, like lovers. We’d be housemates, or something, that’s all. But the gods were also telling me it was a subterfuge, and deep down we both knew it. There was only one place we were heading, and what did that feel like? Well, it felt like pulling on a familiar glove. It fit just right, and I didn’t need to think about it. That’s not to say it wasn’t exciting too.

Still, not being the greatest reader of womankind, I thought I’d better ask if she fancied lunch, one weekend. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t mistaken in the vibes I was getting. I also wanted her to know what kind of guy I was outside of work. I mean, I wasn’t exactly the most exciting type, while Chloe was sparkly and fun. She could have had any guy she wanted.

“Lunch, Mike? Okay. Thought you’d never ask.”

So this was a Friday night, the night before we were due to meet at the coffee shop in town, and I’m thinking about it on the way home, wondering how I’d eventually tell my mother when the pace of things picked up, as I sensed they would. Moving in with a girl was still a racy thing back then, and my mother, born to the Edwardian generation, was bound to have some reservations. I found her fussing with the fire, and out of firelighters. So I said I’d nip to the shop for some. And there behind the counter, like I’d tried to game it so many times before, and failed,… was Lorraine.

She’d bloomed out in a way, travelled, seen things, done things I could not imagine – or so I imagined. And here I was, never left home, asking for a box of stupid firelighters, in an age when everyone else had moved on to gas. I felt like a loser, or at any rate seriously “un-cool”. Nothing new there then. And if I’d paused for a moment I would have realized that’s how Lorraine always made me feel.

“Hello, Mike.”

“Hi. Haven’t seen you in ages.”

“Well, you know, been away for a bit.”

Yes, I’d heard all the rumours by now. She’d dropped out of University, worked in a store down south for a while, then got mixed up with a guy in London. He’d turned out to be a bit of a stoner, and she was well shot of him. Now she was back home. All of that sounds a bit grungy, laid out plain like that, but remember, the god of women looking after her, painting that somewhat dubious history in more of an adventurous light, while making everything I’d done seem ever so dull and conventional.

“I don’t suppose,” she said,…

“Hmm?”

“You fancy going into town tonight? Watch a movie, have a drink, catch up a bit. You know? All those mornings we used to walk to the bus stop together. Remember? Seems so long ago now.”

She’d never said more than a couple of words to me before, and only then with her lids turned down and her head pointing the other way. Now she was full on, eyes wide.

What? She was asking me out? Were the gods having a laugh?

Well what would you have done? Maybe you’d have been right, too. Me? I said okay.

To be continued,…

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moss1I’m struggling with my reading at the moment – a couple of difficult books on the go. One of them is Erich Neumann’s Origins and History of Consciousness. The other is Bernado Kastrup’s Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics. The Neumann is from 1949, a distillation of Jungian thinking on the nature of the unconscious. The Kastrup is a recently published book that revisits the eighteenth century idealist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Reading books like this, way beyond my intellect, I accept I’ll only grasp them dimly and in the hope the effort goes some way towards expanding the mind, even a bit. But their greater impact is on the imagination, where even imperfectly grasped imagery can take on a life of its own, dance with images gleaned from elsewhere, and in ways the authors never intended. And there are some startling images in those books.

It’s thus, stumbling through other books, I’ve gleaned bits of metaphysical ideas over the years, and begun assembling a story that’s making sense in layman’s terms – if not in its details, then in its broad generalities. But sometimes I wonder if I’m mistaken, not so much in the truth of these matters – though there is always that of course. It’s more the question of embarking upon such a quest in the first place. Is my head, in fact, pointing in the wrong direction?

When we speak of metaphysics we’re talking about the origins and the inner workings of the universe, also its reflection in the structure and the flow of the human mind. It’s unlikely you’ll get any of this if you’re a materialist, and view the universe as comprising purely material stuff that was big-banged out of nothing. There is another view though – the idealist view – that there is no material, that what we experience in the world is a result of our being conscious within a greater consciousness, a consciousness that sets the stage, and the rules we play by.

If materialism is true, then fair enough, the game is up, life is absurdly pointless, and we’re all doomed. But with idealism, everything is still to play for, and the possibilities worth exploring. I used to be a materialist – as an engineer you more or less have to be – but that stopped making sense for me a while ago. Idealism may be wrong but it’s much more fertile ground for the imagination.

It was once intimated to me that we already know the true nature of things, but we’ve forgotten them as a precondition of being born. At some point though, when we fall asleep for good, we’ll go: “Oh yea, I remember now!” I say it was “intimated”, and the realization did feel very real at the time, but of course I’ve forgotten it all again now. However, the point is, why spend decades of your life banging away at this stuff, when you’ll be gifted it all back in crystal clarity anyway? And if such talk is nonsense – as it may well be – then it doesn’t matter either way, does it? So why the imperative to probe the metaphysical? And if it was so terribly important for us to know – I mean to help us all get along in the world – we’d be born with a greater sense of it than we have, wouldn’t we?

I don’t know. Would we? Do we, actually? Are those haunting aspects of existence, things like love and beauty, not metaphysical intimations? And what about dreams?

Are you still with me?

What I mean is, pursuing the metaphysical can be like scaling a waterfall when it’s in spate. The general flow of being is in the other direction, and perhaps we’d do better to flow with it. Maybe it’s a reaction to the chaos of a world gone mad that we’d even bother trying. Maybe it’s one’s apparent inability to effect much change or understanding of things that we want to escape from the madness. So we seek to resist the flow of life, which seems permanently bound for disaster, and swim back upstream to rest in the formless, as far away from ground zero as we can manage.

But then the chaos we see in the human world is a result of those same intrinsic energies that give vent to life. Left to itself, the natural world will thrive on those energies. It will be red in tooth and claw, and endlessly self consuming, but it will not be self-reflective. It will be ignorant of its own beauty, and that strikes me as a gap worth filling.

Self reflection is an imperfect instrument though, and comes with risks. It can distort how we see the world. Sit that on top of largely simian instincts and you can see how easily we land ourselves in trouble. If we are not to destroy ourselves, we need to wise up! But what can one do if the route to wisdom is so difficult, and only the Neumanns and the Kastrups can attempt an understanding of it, for are they not too few to form a critical mass? Must the rest of us wait for a divine transformation to enlighten us?

Imagine, jealousy, greed, hate and the evil that is lifestyle blogging, all gone in an instant. Imagine, enlightenment as instinctive as the knowledge never to wear brown shoes with blue trousers, enlightenment that we can look back upon our history with equanimity and wonder how there could once ever have been a people so benighted.

There are those in the human development movement who believe such a thing will happen, but this sounds more to me like the second coming of the Christians, a thing I suspect should be interpreted in terms rather less than literal. In other words, I’m not holding my breath. I’m reminded that in the Daoist way of thinking, mankind stands with one foot in the world, the other in the heavens. Some of us are more inclined one way or the other, but the important thing is to find a balance. Which means,…

It’s time to set the Neumann and the Kastrup aside for a bit. Instead, I’m picking up Le Carre’s “Agent running in the field“, and, delight of delights, I am to spend a week, holed up in tier three isolation, with no interruptions, and Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness.”

Let it rain!

[Unless you’ve got plans, then let it shine]

Graeme out.

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eyes2

So, Friday evening. The last weekend in August now, and the twinkle lights in the garden are pretty in this creeping dusk. It’s also cool out, and the sky is thick with clouds rising for a good downpour. We are sitting at the table beneath the awning, Lottie and I, with dessert, and I’m feeling like a millionaire opposite her. She’s wearing a silvery, floaty dress for dancing, also a cashmere wrap around her shoulders. I would like to have known her as a younger woman, though from what she tells me that would not have been to know the best of her, tortured as she was, and drunk for most of it.

“Where do you find your life’s meaning nowadays, Lottie?”

The question is out before I can stop it. You know how I hate to spoil these quiet, expressive moments between us. Questions only draw a mask upon our faces, and then we cannot see each other properly.

She shrugs, smiles, gives a little shake of the head. The question is a stupid one, so there is no need for a serious answer. I apologise. Then I take out the device on which I carry the photographs she sent me, flash up the first of them, and I show it to her. She responds with an impish grin. I swipe through them slowly, and she responds to each with an inscrutable flick of the eyebrow.

As far as selfies go, they are each of them tasteful to the level of fine art, and I it strikes me, as I am sitting with her, how long she must have spent setting them up. These are none of them the hasty, ill-considered sexting of youth. They are more,… I don’t know what they are: part tease, part invitation, part question.

Do they mean what they seem to mean? It might seem obvious enough to you, when a woman bares her skin to a man, but then the obvious is never the wisest path with Lottie. And yet I cannot ask the question. It’s too much, too crude a thing, and would likely shatter the delight of all our wordless subtleties. I hope she can read the question in my eyes, or at least assume it. But if she can read it, and understand it, her expression, her answer is studiously withheld.

I will not defuse it for you, Rick. You must risk it.

Of course I must.

The problem facing us all is that our evolutionary purpose was long ago replaced by the acquisition of material goods. These have the disadvantage of only satisfying us for a millisecond. Beyond the next consumer fix, we do not know what we want, but that’s fine, because if we don’t know what we want, there is no danger of our failing to attain it, is there? Thus, we wonder why we lack a sense of existential purpose. Worse, there are those like me who say they seek purpose, though still without knowing what it is we want. We have the worst of both worlds then, and both of them are empty.

The voice in me says: “You have to know what you want before you can go for it, Rick.”

Sure, I thought I knew it well enough. I wanted to save the planet. I wanted to vote the Tories out. But it’s dawning on me these things are beyond my competence, when I cannot even save myself. And worse, I suspect I only attempted it to impress a girl.

Is that it, Rick? Is that all there was to it?

Lottie reads my thoughts and blushes.

We move into the garden room where she lights candles, and then we dance.

Still, the question remains between us. It’s in the tension of my arms, and it’s in my legs, and it’s in the expression with which I launch her into the turns, and against which she reacts with spirit. Tango! The dance of seduction. You have to feel it in your bones, and let it come through. Anything else would be a deceit, and she would know it. I accept it as a part of me, that it must come through. What will test me is her rejection and the degree of my disappointment.

In the story of the dance, the woman resists, until the man proves himself. Her resistance is in the tilt of her chin, the turn of her nose, the slant of her shoulder. By degrees though, her passion, and her trust wins through. Except that’s not the part Lottie plays here. From the beginning, she responds with a look and a feel that says if you want it you can have it, but you must still risk the consequences.

Even though you know not what they are.

As a younger man I would not have hesitated, and nor, I suspect, would she. Older now, we merely pause for coffee, and watch the rain. She looks at me and blows away the hair from her eyes, smiles, enjoying every minute of my lumbering discomfiture. She takes up my device which I left lying there, and she dials up a note-pad app, so she can “talk” to me.

She might indeed be the one, and the thing, I am looking for. She might be the hearth and the home, the bed and the warm breast for a pillow. She might be both the company and the purpose. Yes, I might disappear into her for ever, vanish from the world, here in her walled garden, each of us wrapped safe in the other’s eccentricity and imagination. And the strangest thing? Even if I do nothing, we still have all of this. Why then risk a busted flush on one last greedy turn of the card?

But by now the dance has moved on and Lottie has taken the lead, the truth of her being a more determined will than mine. I read it in the straightness of her back, the faint narrowing of her eyes, and in the poise of her hands as they cradle the coffee-cup. She is the feminine in its most benign, and most powerful guise. All the anger and the thwarted energy of her past life, and which she once upon a time anaesthetised with drink, is now sublimated by her strange alchemy into something ever silent but also magical, and merciful and passionate.

She slides the device across so I can see what she has written there:

“Can you bear to have me in your space, Rick? And not question it?”

“Yes.” But more than that: “It would be the finest thing, Lottie, to know that’s where you wanted to be.”

She lowers her coffee-cup, takes my hand, and reads the truth of me in the tremor of it, winks her reassurances. And that, I suppose is that.

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girl with green eyesFrom the outside, the school looked much the same, but on the inside time had left its mark. I remembered drab walls, a sort of uniform eggshell blue, but now it was all pastel shades, and the corridors, which I could still hear echoing to the sound of footsteps and sliding bags, were hushed by coordinating carpets. The classrooms were neater, brighter,… less formal, and of course there were computers everywhere.

It all seemed much smaller. I looked around, puzzled by this reduced scale. Were my other memories similarly distorted? Were those lovelorn moments, those feelings of pubescent despair, also exaggerated, blown up out of all proportion?

The metalwork lab had gone, ripped out, along with the subject to be replaced by something called “technology”. I thought I knew about technology. We had rebuilt vehicles in this room – Mini Coopers, Escorts, even a vintage Alvis, and we’d raced them at Oulton Park,… but technology now consisted of making things from cardboard and coat-hangers.

I picked up a curious contraption made of paper and flimsy dowelling. It had been crudely painted in primary colours and resembled a sort of three-dimensional Picasso.

“What does this do, then?” I asked.

“Well,” said Mr Shaw,… “It sort of flaps its wings.” And then, registering my surprise, he went on defensively: “It’s not so much the object that’s important, as the way the children set about tackling the problem.”

“Right,…” I said.

Working out how to get an engine back into a car was a problem to be tackled. This just looked like,… well,… I don’t know what it looked like, but not much, that’s for sure.

“There used to be lathes in here. And in that room over there, there were drawing boards, rows and rows of them – I got my best GCSE grade in engineering drawing – that’s what set me down the road to being an engineer, I suppose.”

Mr Shaw smiled patiently. “We stripped that lot out years ago,” he said. “It wasn’t relevant any more. We’re not in the business of raising factory fodder now. No factories anyway, are there? And good riddance too. Children deserve better than that. We see ourselves as being more in the business of turning out well-rounded adults.”

Is that what I’d been then? Factory fodder? I suppose it was true. But I’d risen to become  a designer, a professional engineer. Oh, I know the factory had used me up now and was preparing to spit me out as redundant, but it had paid me reasonably well for my trouble, paid for the mortgage on my house, paid for a newish car every four or five years. Isn’t that more what it was about: making an honest living?

We finished our tour back in the reception area, where I was left feeling like an antique. By the age of sixteen, I’d learned the rudiments of cutting metal here, and how to produce an engineering drawing to the stringent requirements of British Standards. I’d stripped a Cosworth engine down to piece-parts, de-coked it, rebuilt it and watched it powering a Ford Cortina around a race-track. But it was all irrelevant now, like me, it seemed: irrelevant, brushed away by a bright new order, crushed beneath legions of brightly coloured, useless flapping things.

“Well, thank you, Mr Shaw. I’m glad I came. It all looks very nice,… very neat,… very em,… stimulating.”

Children were traipsing by, a long procession, hundreds and hundreds of them, heading from the assembly hall to their classes. Where would they go, I wondered, when they left this place? Shaw was right. There were no factories any more to open their doors every September to swallow down the latest batch of fodder. But even well-rounded adults needed jobs, needed money to live. Perhaps more of them went on to college and university than they had done in my day, but what then? They couldn’t remain students for ever? Could they?

“I’ll be off, then,” I said, and then as an after-thought I asked him: “I don’t suppose you remember a girl called Rachel Standish, do you? Same year as me. Dark haired,….”

He shrugged, glanced at his watch. “Sorry,” he said.

“It was a long time ago.”

Sure, too much water had passed, washing away all trace of Rachel and me. The world we had prepared ourselves for had begun to change almost the moment we had walked out of the door. I wondered what she was doing now. Had she found something of more lasting relevance, or was she looking back, like me, and wondering what the hell it had all been for?

I mounted the bike and cycled off slowly. There was a familiar heaviness, like I’d always felt after another day leaving this place without hearing Rachel say those words. I didn’t know if this was good or bad, because my more recent past had been void of any feeling whatsoever. Even my divorce seemed to have left me with nothing but a kind of sickly numbness. This particular pain, of Rachel, was a quarter of a century old, but at least I felt it. It proved I was still capable of feeling something, so I gathered the pain around me and I savoured it.

I retired early that night, lay in bed, twiddling the dial on my ancient VEF radio, tuning in to the static around 208 metres Long Wave. I was straining for the sound of Radio Luxembourg, for Bob Stewart and the top forty. But there was nothing,… just impenetrable white-noise where my youth had once been. What I was contemplating was impossible of course. You can never go back.

I looked over to Rachel’s photograph, a grainy enlargement from an old form taken all those years ago.

“I want to be with you,” I said.

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surface-hands-ellerbeck-abt-1913

If you and I traced our ancestors back, say a couple of thousand years, we’d find we were related. But that’s the thing with family trees. The further back you go, the branches widen, sweeping up more and more of us. Even a couple of hundred years is enough to ensure you’ll score some landed gentry among your lot. There’s likely the occasional murderer, too. But you’re only one in tens of thousands of souls, all related in the same vague way, so it doesn’t mean anything, does it?

I used to think there was nothing worse than some ardent genealogist banging on about his family tree. On and on they’d go, like you could be interested. I mean, what did it matter that so and so married so and so a hundred years ago? But then you get the bug yourself and you begin to see things differently. You begin to understand the fascination.

First, you simply want to honour your family by getting all their names in order, names you heard as a child but never met because they were long dead. Or maybe they’d branched off a few generations ago and gone to live on the other side of the world. So now you want to get them straight in your head. You want them with the right spouse, the right children. You want to pass them on to your own kids, a neat little package of heritage – like your own kids could be bothered. But then you tap into something else, you experience a “wow” moment,  and you realize there’s much more going on here.

Tracing your family history is like sketching out a story, and stories are powerful things. Suddenly, they can transform those dimly remembered names into heroes, into characters of mythological status, and myths are strange things. Once we tap into them our lives change, because that’s what myths do. They come from our deepest past, and they energise our present.

My Irish grandfather, Michael, came to Lancashire to work the quarries as a farrier. Whilst here, he had a fling with a mill-girl called Lizzie. Then he lost his job and went back to his parents’ farm in County Mayo, leaving Lizzie behind. But Lizzie discovered she was with child. So, urgent letters were exchanged and Michael returned to a hasty marriage.

He settled in a village on the edge of the Western Pennines, raised a family of four, one of them my mother. If he’d been a different kind of guy, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story. I imagine a hard-working, happy-go-lucky character, a bit of a charmer, and full of stories, not all of them true, but when things got serious, he’d always do the right thing.

That mill-girl had a brother called Richard. He married another mill-girl called Annie. Then he got swept up in the Great War, and died of fever in Mesopotamia, never saw home again. Annie struggled for years on a war-widow’s pension, then left for Australia on the promise of a better life. There, she married Fred, a German guy – at a time when German guys were still unpopular. I’ve not followed him up yet, but I’m thinking Fred must have been something special. Anyway, the two of them went on to pioneer land near Pingaring, and they seemed to make a go of it. That’s where her story peters out for me, them living a cowboy and cowgirl kind of life in the vastness of Western Australia.

This is not to say my family is any more or less fascinating than yours. We can all find the archetypal stories if we look. It’s not about the bloodline. Blood means nothing unless there’s money involved. Annie’s not a blood relative, but I think about her story a lot. Romance, tragedy, courage, adventure and triumph over adversity. It’s got everything and I find it inspiring. Even across time, something about her story, played out a century ago influences the way I think today.

But there’s more. I’ve researched the life of an obscure Victorian man of letters. He’s no relation at all, yet I ended up living his story as intensely as if it were a part of my own. So it doesn’t need to be even a vague family connection either. It runs much deeper than genealogy. It transcends blood and kin. It reaches back to the collective from which all stories rise.

If by some magic we were able to meet those people for real, there’s a chance we might not like them very much. We would find them too human, rather than the perfected heroes and heroines of our imagination. What we’re doing then is projecting parts of our psyche upon a bare structure of names, dates and events. What we tap into are latent energies that seek passage into consciousness, and they take powerful form as stories.

As we unearth these stories, we’re not uncovering the literal truth of a past life. Rather, we are exploring pieces of our own selves. Doing so, we grant new life to the mythical foundations of the past, all our pasts because the thing with myths is they seek renewal for each generation who stumbles upon them. And they reward us with fresh meaning and direction.

I’ve discovered no celebrities, no toffs, no great statesmen, in my family tree, at least not between here and the early Victorian period. Any further than that, who knows?  Four generations seems plenty for keeping it real. Four generations, and the stories are still plentiful, still of sufficient resolution for one’s imagination to get to grips with.

The best stories do not need kings and queens to act them out. We find them in the ordinary. That’s why they’re of such universal appeal. Colliers, labourers, crofters, weavers, quarrymen, farriers, domestics, pioneers and conscripted soldiers. That’s my lot. Plus of course life, love and adversity,… the stuff of stories and the bedrock of existence.

It turns out, genealogy isn’t boring after all.

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atlwcsOccasionally you come across a novel that makes you realize you’ve been tolerating some dreadful rubbish in your reading of late. Such novels light you up from the first paragraph, the first line even. And so it was for me with this one. They are like a breath of fresh air after a long incarceration.

All the light we cannot see has great depth and intricacy, both in its subject and in the telling of it. The chapters are short, sometimes just a page or two, but there’s an intensity to them, and they shift about from beginning to end, illuminating meaning, lighting the way as Doerr leads us through a labyrinth of place and time and love – the love between people, and of life itself.  

I’m describing a work of lyrical and literary merit here, to say nothing of being the winner of the 2015 Pulizer prize, yet it also has the quality of a compulsive page-turner. At times you want to rush at it, to find out what happens next, instead of lingering in the silkenness of the words and the power of the ideas. So, those short chapters really save you, punctuating your way through the complexity and the magic.

It sounds like I’m describing a fairy story, not a story of war, yet there are elements here that ring with a mythological resonance.

The story opens in the early 1930s and follows the lives of two orphans. First, there is Werner Pfennig, a young German boy with a genius for building and repairing radios. Through his first radio-set he hears an enigmatic transmission from France, something that lights his passion for the romance of science and discovery. The memory of it is to captivate and haunt him throughout his life. But the war is looming and, longing to avoid his dead father’s fate in the mines, he allows himself to be enlisted in the Hitler youth movement, and from there into the army. There, his expertise with radios sees him as part of a unit that roves the battle lines in a truck, using radio direction methods to locate partisan transmissions. It is a hunt with inevitably brutal conclusions.  

The other orphan is Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, living with her father in Paris. When Paris is over-run by the Germans, they flee to St. Malo, to the house of her uncle Étienne, an other-worldy man, badly shell-shocked from the first war. Unknown to Marie-Laure, her father, a master-locksmith from the museum, has been entrusted with the safekeeping of a magnificent diamond the Nazis would dearly like to catch up with.

Étienne’s house is the source of the mysterious radio transmissions Werner listened to as a boy. The transmitter has lain unused for many years. But as St Malo too is overrun, Étienne is reluctantly caught up in the partisan effort, and begins using it again to transmit coded messages to the allies.

That Werner is destined to meet Marie-Laure we are never in any doubt. But this is far from a simple love story. The events of Werner’s war in particular raise questions of courage, morality and pragmatism. But contrasted with this, we have the love between Marie-Laure and her father, and later her uncle Étienne. Then there is Étienne’s companionship with his housekeeper, the energetically practical Madame Manec,… And then there is St Malo, so beautifully described, almost as a living thing.

Werner’s war takes him first to the eastern front, but gradually, as things go badly for Germany, he and his comrades find themselves travelling westward to St Malo, and the imminent D-Day landings, still on the hunt for enemy radio transmissions,…

You can see all this coming from some way out, but rest assured the writer has seen you seeing it, and is lying in wait for you with a twist that is as beautiful and emotional as it is unexpected. As I grow older I become less patient with writers, and it’s a rare one who can break down the barricades and lance my heart as this story does.

Some critics didn’t like it. They didn’t like the pellucid prose. They didn’t like the genre motifs, the page-turning urgency. So maybe I’m just thick and it appealed to my uncritical and semiliterate tastes. But from a random pick on a charity shop bookshelf ‘All the light we cannot see’ lands easily in my all-time top-ten, and a small list of books to be read again and again. 

 

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