Friday, 30 September 2016

The Undiscovered Country

[The following short was written for the Friends of Lowestoft Library's literature festival competition 2016. The prize on offer was a book token of uncertain value (anyway, I was going to decline in the event that I won - long story). The brief was to write a story under 1500 words on the theme of "To be or not to be..." I called it "The Undiscovered Country" (see what I did there) and for extra brownie points, I set it in an anonymous seaside town that could very well have been Lowestoft itself. Caveat 1: the story is written in present tense, and gawd, I hate present tense (very hard to pull off; lazy writer's quick steroid injection to beef up naff work). For some reason I was feeling "present" for this one. Caveat 2: the story was banged out and not edited (deadline was short). The bounders extended the deadline after I'd rushed to get it in. So there are undoubtedly bits that would benefit from a bit of emery cloth.

Either way, the judges were not impressed! Enjoy, or not, as the case may be.]
===
The Undiscovered Country

At about three-thirty, unable to sleep, I finally go to confront him.
What do I have to fear now? Nothing. But I stand at the door in the dim corridor with my fist raised to knock as if time has frozen.
The sounds in room 121 go on. There is more than a door between me and the sounds: there is a world.
I stare at the numbers on the door and do not knock. Instead, at three-thirty on a winter morning, I first return to my room and pace like an impotent; then I go outside. In the hall at the foot of the carpeted stairs, the lone overhead light is buzzing on and off.
To be on, or to be off.
To live on.
To die.
To fight on, to cling to the ever-shrinking handfuls of light between the enveloping arms of darkness. Why does it buzz on futilely? A moth soughs and flutters against a window, trapped in sight of a goal it can never reach.
At the bottom of the stairs the bar is empty, silent. The only light, shining through the glass door, is the garish kaleidoscopic flickering of a gambling machine. I think of the empty chairs and the stained tables. I remember the barman, pouring my order the moment I walked into the bar for the second time. I remember the bar's carpet: matted into a beery, tacky, colourless film.
I turn away to the door that leads outside, into the bitterness of a February night. The strip is deserted, still lit by hopeful orange lights. The waves are unseen, their sound a dead mechanical rumble, the murmur of an eternal machine. In this machine the pointless waves forever throw themselves against the land and fall back, spent, beaten. Then they gather themselves and try again and again fail.
There are lights out there on the oil-black sea, buoys, rigs, windmills, a passing vessel.
A door behind me slams open and closed.
I look reflexively.
The man has come from room 121. He looks at me with a swagger, a challenge: what am I going to do about it?
The answer: nothing. It's an answer I always give.
He drives off, back to a world he can pretend does not impinge upon this time, this place. Until he grows a baser fruit that needs plucking.
The door opens again before the echoes of the departing car have gone. The woman is black-eyed, unbeaten; under the streetlights her skin is translucent, like waxed paper wrapping a bruise. She is aged, but not old; aetiolated, starved, wretched – but upright, unafraid, level. She has sung her song until the words have become meaningless.
I shudder. A momentary instinctive revulsion rises up in me, as if the ill-use, the dark times in dirty square rooms, the fond grip of merciless laughter, might exist as a real thing, a scum, a miasma, a crumb of dirt, a contagion that might rub off. It makes my involuntary first step a backwards one, not a forwards one.
“Sorry about the noise,” she says, in an even tone. She meets my eye for a second.
“I was awake anyway.”
“So you heard everything,” she says, and turns away to look up and down the deserted seafront. “Sorry about that.”
“No. It wasn't that bad,” I say. I think of the way I stood in front of her door but did not knock.
She looks at me again, measuring me. “What are you doing in this hellhole?”
“Holiday,” I say. The word sounds hollow. Pleased to meet you, and by the way, I'm a liar.
“No-one comes here for a holiday. Not at this Godforsaken time of year.” She says this without rebuke.
“I was just thinking about the waves,” I blurt. “About how pointless they are, doing the same thing over and over again, failing and trying, trying and failing.”
“But each wave is new. Each only exists for a moment. They do not fail; their lives end in defeat, as all lives do. But they throw themselves into the fight without regret. Their defeat is their victory. Their pride, their glory; their magnificence.”
I don't know what to say to that. I remember something long forgotten: an old vagrant, sitting on the station steps in a puddle of his own making, reciting Shakespeare. He looked up as I approached and addressed a few lines to me:
“...Who would fardels bear
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”
I walked by him, stepping over the tiny rivulet. I said nothing. I did nothing. I gave my usual answer. The old man carried on his speech until I could hear him no more. The Shakespearean philosopher was right to fear death; but for the materialist there is only permanent nothing. The old vagrant Hamlet had a beginning, and must after these intervening years have had an end. As do we all.
“I can't stand too close to you,” the woman says, and begins to walk away. “It's business.”
Whatever chance I had, I missed it. I look up and down the strip; it is deserted. Even the paired red lights of the departing car have vanished from view. We two are the only souls left. She is a lost soul, but so am I. One lost soul cannot guide another. But they draw one another, like flotsam rolled together in a restless sea, soon parted by chance eddies.
“You could leave,” I call out. “Get on a bus and go.”
She looks back, already far away. “So could you.”
I watch as she moves away. The February wind is bitingly cold.
After a time, shivering, I go inside.
*
When I awake, it is dark again. The days are devilishly short at this time of year, the nights nightmarishly long.
The whisky and the pills stand untouched on the counter, just as they have done these past fourteen days.
I am not ready, and may never be ready to live again. But I am not yet ready to die.
*
I stand outside her door, and this time I knock. I cannot just leave. We shared only a few short moments, a few words. I don't know her name. But I cannot just leave. For a long time I think she isn't coming, but finally the door opens.
“What do you want?” she asks coldly.
“I'm going back,” I say. Now, suddenly, I wonder why she should be interested to hear that.
“Good for you,” she says, but she doesn't mean it. She doesn't care either way.
I want to tell her that I watched the flowers wither. I want to say that I hid from the knocking at the door, and in the end the knocking stopped. But I do not. I cannot. Instead, hopelessly, I hand her the whisky and the pills. “One at a time,” I say, in case she sees an implication in my gift that isn't there.
A smile. Not at the gift, but at the caveat. “We're all just crossing the river,” she says, and takes both gifts, “one stone at a time.”
“I'll come back,” I say.
“Why?” she asks.
I want to explain that lost souls cannot save one another; they need an anchor, a grounding, something to pull against to haul themselves to shore. But I can't find the words. Instead, I say: “To save you.”
She looks downcast for a moment. Then she shapes a bitter smile. “Men,” she says, “are all the same.”
She closes the door, quietly but firmly, in my face.

THE END

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Rules for Private Investigators

[This tad of micro-fiction was entered into this year's Noirwich competition. It didn't make the shortlist. To be fair the notes I made for it were longer than the word allowance (500), and it was hard to trim. Enjoy, or not, apparently.]

Nothing. Then:
Tat tat tat.
Tat tat tat.
The cold light of a Mousehold dawn.
Thin dew on the windscreen.
Tat tat tat.
Callum Daly, still in his pyjamas.
I wound down the window and saw that the kid had brought me a mug of coffee. I could already taste it: bitter, with the high cloying notes of cheap instant.
“Mum says you're not to come around here,” Callum said, handing me the mug.
“Morning Callum.”
“Morning Mrs Chandler.”
“Ms. You want me to give up?”
“He won't come back this way again,” the boy said. He tried to smile.
Rule one: never give up.

I left the empty mug on the Dalys' doorstep and drove south.

Riverside Road, not far past dawn: river cruisers moored to my right, their occupants' uncompleted sleep windowed by late night noise and inadequate curtains.
There was only one pedestrian: a girl, eighteen, twenty, returning from an all-nighter and looking rather worse for wear. Golden light suffused her golden hair; she'd run her fingers through it recently, but not a brush.
A white van pulled up. There were two men inside.
I pulled over too. Good Samaritans, or...?
The girl had lost her shoes. A hell of a night.
The van's passenger emerged. The girl didn't seem to notice him.
“Heavy night?” he asked; as she made to pass him, he grabbed her.
I'd seen enough.
I keep my girl's best friend in the glovebox. Nothing fancy. Anodised titanium.
I got out of the car. The man was manoeuvring the girl towards the van's side door. She resisted. A little bit.
I crossed the road. Only now did the man see me. “Get lost,” I told him, and put my left arm between them.
He hadn't seen what I was holding in my right hand.
“Mind your own, cow. We're just giving her a lift home.”
The driver's door opened.
Rule two: either hit someone or don't.
I hit him.
He reeled away, clutching his face. Blood welled up between his fingers. He let go of the girl.
The van roared off a moment later. “I'll have the law on you,” the passenger shouted.
“Join the queue,” I said softly.
The girl had a neck wound: two punctures, like a vampyre bite. Cute.
“What are you on?” I snapped my fingers in front of her eyes.
There was no comprehension there.
“Whoever did this... I can see them jailed.” Or hurt. Her choice.
A head shake. No.
“You sure?”
She nodded.
I pressed my card into her hand. She looked down long enough to read it:
Ruth Chandler
Private Investigator
Norwich
“If you change your mind...”
Nothing.
“Can I drive you home?”
She shook her head.
I watched her shuffle away towards the station. My card fluttered to the ground like a dead butterfly.
Rule three: you can't save everyone.
I shrugged and drove south.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Sir James Edward Smith – the other Norfolk scientist


I wrote this essay in 2009.

“At the distance of Norwich you will be quite buried alive.”

We are overrun with anniversaries at the moment. It is Darwin’s 200th birthday this year; the father of modern taxonomy - Carl Gustav Linnaeus - celebrated his 300th birthday in 2007. Nicely sandwiched in between these two august scientists is our own local hero Sir James Edward Smith, whose 250th birthday it is this year.

James Edward Smith was the eldest of seven children of James Smith, a wealthy textile merchant. Smith developed an unquenchable enthusiasm for botany at an early age. According to The Worthies of Norwich (1892), he ‘longed to possess the delicate blue flowers of the wild succory as a small child…’ At that time, Norfolk, and in particular Norwich, was a hotbed of botanical enthusiasm. Smith became one of half-a-dozen or so botanists in Norwich who were ‘among the first to study the writings and adopt the system of Linnaeus.’ Smith wanted to study botany formally but in 1771 was sent to Edinburgh University to study medicine instead under John Hope, who as luck would have it was a proponent of the Linnaean system. When Smith moved to London two years later to study anatomy, Hope gave him a letter of introduction to give to Joseph Banks, that great patron of science. At a breakfast together one day, Banks revealed that he had been offered Linnaeus’ biological collection, but had refused it. He encouraged Smith to buy it himself. It would be no exaggeration to say that this was an extremely significant moment in the history of science in Britain.

The contribution of Linnaeus himself to botany and taxonomy (the naming and classification of living things) is immeasurable. His binomial (two name) system of describing plants and animals has been used ever since (familiar examples being Homo sapiens, people, and Rattus rattus, the black rat). His classification was the first attempt to apply structure to the bewildering array of wild things in the world. There were mistakes (like whales classified with fish), but Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae as his classification was called was the template for the biological classification scientists rely on today. The Systema Naturae was built upon a vast collection of plants and animals – and it was this, after its originator’s death and that of his son, which had suddenly become available to buy. It was the foremost store of biological knowledge in the world at that time.

Smith was lucky in his negotiations for the Linnaean collection (or Linnaean Cabinet, as it was known). The executor of Linnaeus junior’s will was determined to conclude negotiations with Smith before entertaining any other offers for the collection – those behind Smith in the queue including Catherine the Great of Russia. As luck would have it, Smith, by having first refusal, was certainly able to purchase the collection for a bargain price – although for what was still a vast some of money at the time.

In an excited letter to his father (who was funding the purchase), Smith listed the collection as including: 3198 species of insect, 1564 shells and another 200 “not arranged,” 2424 mineral specimens, including 108 of silver, 31 of gold, and 45 birds in glass cases. “Baron Alstromer is to have the small herbarium, and I am to give 900 guineas for the rest.” The collection set sail from Sweden on the 2nd of October, 1784, in 26 cases on The Appearance under Captain Axel Sweder. Smith remarked that the cases must themselves be vast, since the nearly 3000 books in the collection took up only 6 of the 26 cases.

At 1000 Guineas, the biological collection of Linnaeus was a steal. At least, King Gustavus III of Sweden thought so. Gustavus had been touring in Venice and France, and on his return to Sweden was incensed that the collection of Linnaeus had been sold to an outsider. The King even dispatched a ship to intercept the collection on its way to England, a chase immortalized in an etching by royal artist John Russel. But it was too late: by the end of October the collection was safely in store in a British customs house.

When his friend and colleague the Bishop of Carlisle, Rev. Samuel Goodenough, heard of Smith’s purchase, he wrote: “Your noble purchase of the Linnaean Cabinet most decidedly sets Britain above all other nations in the Botanical Empire; and it were much to be wished that the studies of individuals with respect to the science at large would become so animated, that she might be induced to fix her seat among us.” His words were an accurate assessment of the importance of possibly the greatest collection of natural history in the world at that time. With the collection as its cornerstone, Smith founded the Linnean Society, which is still the foremost society of taxonomists in the world. Smith’s personal contribution was impressive. He described numerous new plants from Britain, Greece, America and around the world, as well as insects and lichens.

Smith was later also elected to the Royal Society “without a single black ball,” and had the honour of instructing the queen (Charlotte, wife of George III) and the royal princesses – although Smith’s ‘warm admiration’ for Rousseau (whose ideas may have influenced the French Revolution) “scandalized her Majesty too irrecoverably, and he was dismissed from this occupation.” It is not known whether Smith shared Rousseau’s politics – he probably admired the French philosopher’s work in other fields. Despite the scandal of his dismissal, Smith was knighted in 1814.

When Samuel Goodenough heard that Smith was leaving Soho Square to return to Norfolk, he immediately rode over to try and prevail upon him to stay in London. Goodenough was too late – Smith had already packed and gone. As Goodenough wrote to Smith: “Directly I began grieving for you and the Linnaean Society. At the distance of Norwich you will be quite buried alive.” But as Lady Smith commented in her collection of her husband’s letters, “In the city of Norwich he found himself among those who knew and esteemed him.”

The Linnaean collection came to Norwich with Smith, where it resided for the next 30 years until Smith’s death in 1828, when Lady Smith sold it to the Linnean Society for £3150, a purchase that left the society in debt for many years. More than 200 years after its purchase, the Linnaean collection is still a vital resource for modern taxonomists.

It is arguable that no greater scientist has his home in Norfolk. But what is Smith’s legacy? There is a brass plaque in St. Peter Mancroft dedicated to him and his wife; his house (29 Surrey Street) has a small plaque informing passers-by that he lived there. And that is all. Not for Smith the immortality of bronze that Sir Thomas Browne enjoys. A fascinating man, a real Norfolk hero and a vital contributor to British science, Sir James Edward Smith deserves to be remembered.

“He found the science of botany, when he approached it, locked up in a dead language; -he set it free by transfusing it into his own. He found it a severe study, fitted only for the recluse; -he left it of easy acquisition to all. In the hands of his predecessors, with the exception of his immortal master, it was dry, technical and scholastic; -in his, it was adorned with grace and elegance, and might attract the poet as well as the philosopher.” - from Obituary in Philosophical Magazine, May 1828.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Saga pedo - favourable conservation status in UK!?


I have heard Natural England accused of moving the goalposts in terms of defining favourable condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest. However, if you wanted to find European-scale instance of strange conservation assessment, there's one right here.

Saga pedo is a whopping great carnivorous cricket.


Photo: www.educ-envir.org

Thing is, you don't get Saga pedo in the UK. Never have done. Can continued absence be described as favourable condition? I guess at least you could say things haven't got any worse.