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Walking the Plank

‘Laces loose, lassie?’

Francesca stood and turned to face the snarling voice, her skirts trailing on the powder-room floor.

‘Captain Deadeye,’ she said with her best smile. ‘What news? Have we found another fat merchant to rob of his spoils? Or perhaps more merfolk to hunt for sport?’

‘You’re to come up on deck,’ the pirate replied, chewing on the words like a pickled lemon. ‘The crew would like a talk.’

‘Perhaps you could give me a moment?’

‘This ain’t a request,’ Deadeye replied, his cutlass hissing as it emerged from the scabard. ‘Now get up there.’

‘As you wish.’

Francesca crossed the room and ascended the well-worn ladder. Unseen by the captain, something crossed the room behind her, snaking through the sawdust.

The first thing she noticed as she emerged into bright daylight was the volcano. The island of Mahonia had blown its top at last, spitting flames and dense smoke into a crystal clear sky. Outcast gulls wheeled away from it in flocks, seeking a new sanctuary. She thought of the marooned geological expedition, trapped between the fire of the underworld and the deepest, bluest of seas. She was not the sort to let her breast heave at the first hint of sorrow, but she felt a tremor of loss at the thought of poor Welby and his colleagues.

However, more urgent matters demanded her attention. A motley collection of faces glared at her from around the deck. Tatooed Chinese renegades, their hair in tight pony tails, the fire of foreign magic burning in their eyes. Fugitive Frenchmen, scarred by jaunts in the Bastille and on the chain gang. Strange savage creatures from the Americas, their faces spread across their chests, flat nostrils exposing flashes of lung. In the rigging Barbary apemen dangled beside powder monkeys, while pygmies and Lilliputians scrambled up the lower rungs for a better view. The Wandering Dog’s crew, all frowning as grimly as the skull and crossbones under which they sailed.

‘There’s few things worse than bein’ an outcast,’  Deadeye said as he followed her out of the hatch. ‘We should know, shouldn’t we boys?’

The crew muttered assent.

‘And there’s few we won’t take in, if they’re willin’ to pull their weight. After all, everybody’s got to have a home.’

Deadeye bore down on Francesca as he spoke, cutlass held out before him, so that she had to back off towards the starboard beam. The crowd parted to let her through, then merged again behind the captain, a mass of weathered flesh and faded cloth. There was no sound except the distant rumble of Mahonia. One of the chimps in the rigging began to screech, but was beaten into silence by his neighbours.

‘But there’s one sort that’ll never be welcome on this here boat,’ the captain said, his voice rising, ‘and that a traitor!’

This time the crew roared their approval. Francesca trembled, perspiration peppering her brow. Her heels knocked against the raised edge of the deck. Behind her was a gap in the beam and a plank stretched out above the water.

‘Did you think we wouldn’t work it out?’ Deadeye bellowed. ‘A fallen woman fleeing her father’s wrath, yet not a scar or blemish on you – oh yes, I had one of the monkeys watch you bathe. Scales was all they saw. What sort of woman has scales? Not an English aristocrat, that’s for sure. And you were so well equipped for a lass who’d never travelled. Too much experience and too little knowledge, that gave it away. Perhaps we should have left you to die with lover boy on the island – don’t think I didn’t notice the looks between you two. But me, I like a bit of variety. It spices up life.’

Francesca felt the sharp point of the cutlass prodding at her guts. She stepped onto the plank.

‘It has been an exciting journey,’ she said, putting on a brave face as she backed unsteadily along the creaking board.

‘Aye, we’re all sad to see the end,’ Deadeye said with a grin.

Francesca reached the end of the plank and looked back at the crew’s leering visages. The wind turned and the gutsy reek of sixty unwashed bodies was replaced by the fresh salt breath of the ocean, tinged with a faint, sad scent of smoke. She looked the captain in the eye and smiled smugly.

‘It’s nearer than you think, captain,’ she said.

The wind lifted her skirts, and for the first time the pirates saw the cord tied to her boot, running back along the plank, between their feet, and down into the powder room. They had time for one shared gasp. Then Francesca leapt into the air, graceful as a salmon in a stream, and plunged into the waters below. The line hissed out behind her and pulled taught. Down in the powder room, the little noose on the end tightened round the trigger of a pistol. The flint fell and sparks flew into the barrels of gunpowder. The Wandering Dog exploded with a deafening roar.

Francesca rose to the surface and watched the shattered remnants of the ship bobbing on the water. A plume of smoke poured from the scorched, sinking hull, a twin to the cloud rising over the volcano. She tore herself loose of the cumbersome dress and dived back down beneath the waves, her heart swelling with pride at her triumph and joy at returning to her people. Other merfolk rose to greet her, scales glinting as they swam victory laps. She kicked off her boots and joined them, webbed feet flexing through the crystal clear sea.

 

This story was previously published in Alienskin magazine, February 2008

How We Fall – out now

One of the few pieces of creative writing I managed to get done this summer was a sci-fi short called How We Fall, published now by Redstone Science Fiction. It’s a story of soldiers put in a difficult situation, and the clash between their personalities. It’s also about how the same thing, or in this case the same person, can have very different meanings for different people.

For me, there’s something particularly powerful about the image of angels. I don’t know where this comes from. The religious part of my up-bringing didn’t feature a lot of traditional iconography. I’ve never had a grand vision or vivid dream in which the heavenly choirs descended on me in blinding light and close harmony singing. And yet the lure is there. A large part of what I love about Ennis and Dillon’s Preacher is the use, mostly subversively and occasionally reverentially, of that sort of Christian iconography. So when an ad campaign involving angels appeared across bus shelters around Manchester, it caught my eye. What for the ad-men was a gimmicky tagline, for me became the heart of my story. I’ve not delved deep into the spiritual implications of a winged messenger, but I like to think I’ve at least got more depth out of this than the guys selling deodorant.

Interview at Alt Hist

I’ve recently been interviewed for Alt Hist. This is the first time I’ve been interviewed for anything other than a job, and it felt strange to answer questions that weren’t about my administrative experience or people management skills. But that made it a far more enjoyable sort of interview to do.

Unrelated to that, yesterday I sent off the final assignment of a non-writing related course that’s kept me from creative writing for most of the summer. Now I’m trying to get my brain back into a writing gear, trying to think in literary rather than academic terms.  This should be liberating, unfettered by needing to write about facts in an essay format. But instead I’m finding that the creative gears have become rusted, and are slow to grind back into action. It’s an enjoyable challenge to get them going, but more of a challenge than I’d like.

From the Sea

Pheidippides ran from the sea, the crash of waves and Persian steel still echoing in his ears, a memory of salt spray kissing his neck.  Behind him his brother Greeks piled the dead on the scarlet sands and gave hearty thanks to Pan for scattering their foes.  Harsh chants of victory gave way to the steady thud of his sandals on the path, joined by the rushing of blood in his ears as he ascended the steep mountainside.  His heart soared at the news he carried, of the triumph granted by the satyr god.

Pace after pace the road stretched out behind him, dust rising and finding the sweat so that his shins were coated with mud.  He stumbled, toes ramming against a rocky outcrop.  Pain seared his nerves and blood dripped into the dirt but he righted himself without pausing.  His lungs burned and an ache throbbed through his legs, rising to meet the muscles straining for each ragged breath.  He rubbed the sweat from his eyes but still his vision shifted, trees by the road blurring into a green veil that danced in the breeze.  Then the leaves were torn asunder and a horned figure stepped forth, grinning fiercely as he sprang towards Pheidippides on cloven hooves.

Fear seized the runner.  Had Pan, having broken the Persians, now come for him as well?  Not even daring to catch the god’s eye he hurled himself forward, faster through the thin mountain air, and out into the hills below.  He felt a piercing gaze on his back, heard laughter rattle on the wind, and thought of the enemy soldiers, eyes wide with panic as the Greeks bore down upon them.

At last Athens appeared across the plains.  He staggered into her streets, women and children watching him nervously as he ran on, each breath a wave of fire through his chest.  Finally he reached the temple and sank to his knees on the cold marble floor.  Staring up at the goat-legged figure before him he called out one last hoarse word.

‘Victory!’

The statue smiled at this prayer of thanks, and Pheidippides felt the panic fade, leaving him to drift into welcome blackness.

 

Originally published in Carillon 18, June 2007.

The Bomb

Shoppers shuffled to market beneath the tall concrete buildings of Century Square. The towers reached to the dizzying light of heaven, blocking out the sun. Each one was a masterpiece of functionalist architecture, cold, dismal and empty. Companies needing office space looked outwards instead to the redbrick suburbs, and the Ministry of Appropriations, forced to occupy one of the grey blocks, was notorious for inefficiency. But from the rooftops the air-raid sirens could be heard for miles, a distorted melody backed by the percussion of distant artillery.

In the square figures shuffled from stall to stall, huddling round products even the war had not consumed. Old ladies in shawls prodded vigorously at wrinkled apples then complained that they were bruised. A mother berated a penniless stallholder, demanding a refund for cleaning fluids that left greasy smears across her windows. Another fretted around her screeching daughter, offering dollies and candy canes if she would be quiet. Outside the Ministry of Appropriations a street sweeping van belched black exhaust soot. All of them ignored the siren’s wail, made indifferent to its warning by countless practices and false alarms.

A bomber buzzed low and angry over the rooftops, onlookers gawping upwards as it hurled its load into the heart of the square. A thought bomb burst open, showering the place with lettered casing and infectious memes. Concepts hurtled through the air, embedding themselves in shoppers and stallholders. There was panic as the victims found their minds invaded by new and outrageous ideas, confusing and contradicting the reality to which they held. Raw, unexpected perspectives overwhelmed a decade’s dogged resistance, stubborn habits receding in the face of reality’s shifting front line. Some victims, startled into panic by their own discordant thoughts, ran off through the monotone grid of streets, spreading the word in their wake. The rest simply sat down, stunned into surrender by the unending, bloodthirsty futility of violence. The bomb had riddled them with doubts, shown its victims the self-defeating horror of war, the pointlessness of resistance.

The idea spread through town like a contagion, carrying its symptom of silence. Homes, offices, schools, all fell quiet. The handles of sirens ceased to turn, radios hissed with static as local stations gave up educating the indifferent masses. Cars sat dormant in the street, their drivers gazing at each other in stillness. By dusk the distant guns of the front line had ceased their brutal barking. For the first time in years, an owl could be heard.

* * *

Two days later the tanks rolled into town, a grime-streaked victory parade as the opposition sealed their success. Scouts ran ahead of them, darting from one doorway to the next as they watched warily for signs of resistance. Not a finger was lifted against them, citizens watching passively as gunmen stormed their homes and stole their food.

The whole town had an eerie, ghostlike feel, draped in a quiet made not of calm or comfort but of hopelessness and inertia. The invaders initially prowled the streets with a wary determination, rifles at the ready, eyes darting back and forth as they swept through silent buildings or patrolled the deserted, wind-swept roads. The locals went wordlessly about their work, heads bowed, shoulders hunched, as though bent low by a great weight. They went outside only when necessary, and talked in hushed whispers when it became necessary to buy their bread and milk. The soldiers watched them nervously, at first afraid that they might rise into armed revolt, then wary of the unnerving, lifeless silence. But fed, sheltered and safe from any sign of resistance, the war-weary troopers began to relax.

The soldiers’ orders were clear – no fraternising. But set a rule and you set someone a challenge.

‘It’s not fraternising if we don’t talk, right?’ a private said, watching a pretty blonde walk by, long green dress swaying enticingly with each step. His comrades smirked knowingly to each other as he followed the girl down an alley and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Doesn’t seem safe,’ he said, ‘pretty thing like you out on your own.’

He leaned in close, stubble rasping at her cheek, hands reaching round her unresisting waist, fingertips caressing her curves. She reached up, tilted his helmet aside and began to whisper in his ear. He ceased his fumbling. Arms fell slack by his sides. At last she fell silent, gazing into his eyes. He nodded, turned, and walked numbly back towards his companions, rifle trailing in the gutter. The squad huddled around him, eyes flitting back and forth, glancing warily at their friend then nervously over their shoulders. He spoke, and one by one the camouflaged huddle ceased to twitch their heads, sinking into apathy or setting off in determination, spreading the word through their unit and beyond.

Silence crept along the war’s front line. The sharp chatter of small-arms gave way to crickets chirping on the breeze. Bombers idled on disused runways and tanks gathered dust. All across the continent owls could be heard.

This story was originally published in Atomjack magazine, November 2007.

The Magpie Dance

There were Morris dancers in the town square. Not in the classic costumes of green dungarees and big white hankies, but black tailcoats with ragged strips of cloth hanging from the sleeves. Their clothes were liberally dotted with tiny mirrors and silver beads that glittered as they caught the sun. They stood with sticks raised, pointed caps facing inwards in a circle like the beaks of conspiratorial magpies.

‘Creepy birds,’ Alex said.

I smiled down at him and squeezed his hand. He in turn kept glancing between the static dancers and the fifty pence coin clutched in his tiny fingers, a special treat for the market fair. It was the first time he’d had spending money of his own, and he was treating the occasion with an infant’s practised gravity.

With a crack of wood on wood, the Morris dancers started their set, staves beating a steady rhythm. They twirled and skipped, following each other in a circle. Then they formed two rows, prancing in to meet each other with a whirl of black limbs and a cry like the call of ravens. Their mirrors and beads sketched shining arcs of light, drawing my eye along with their back-and-forth flow.

I stood entranced. In the moment of the dance, these scruffy men and women became something more, something ancient and majestic that I had yearned to be a part of without ever knowing it.

The dance became faster, more exuberant. Each line in turn would bound forward, leaping into the air as they reached their partners, rag-coats flapping like wide feathered wings. On the third approach, the dancers leapt not just into the air, but over the heads of those opposite, fluttering to the far side of the circle. I felt a gasp run through me, heard it rise from others in the audience. No-one applauded, too afraid off breaking the moment, the perfect rhythm playing out before us.

The other line of dancers leapt, and it seemed to me that they didn’t land, but soared into the air, stretching out to catch the breeze, white shirts becoming the breasts of magpies. They circled above our heads, still glittering from a thousand shining points, then darted down into the crowd, rushing past and round each person in turn, feathers brushing against us in the tight twirl of flight. No-one stood in the circle any more, but I could hear the clattering chorus of wood on wood, an ancient rhythm that made my head sway. Glittering wings spiralled before my eyes. The world faded around me, became a sea of shining points against the black of an ancient night sky.

And then the rhythm stopped.

I stood, blinking in the midday sun of a modern market town, my son’s hand squeezing my own. The crowd looked around in bewildered silence, melancholy flitting through their eyes as they saw the empty space where the dancers had been.

‘Lost fifty pee,’ Alex said, staring mournfully at his empty hand. Tears welled in his eyes.

‘That’s alright,’ I said, preparing to head off a tantrum. ‘You can have a new one.’

I reached into my pocket and found it empty. No wallet, no cash, no keys. I patted my other pockets in growing alarm, and looking up saw the rest of the crowd going through the same routine. As we stared at each other in anger and confusion, I heard the mocking cry of a distant magpie, vanishing on the breeze.

 

This story was originally published in Flash Me magazine, October 2008.

 

The Extra Mile

Geordie offered up a brief prayer to anyone who might listen and wrenched into a sharp left. Engine roaring, he skidded around the muddy corner. Ahead of him four other cars remained, long-haul rough racers with armoured bodywork and sturdy suspension. To have endured this far, half a continent from their starting point, guaranteed prize money. Now it was all about pride.

Nerves buzzed with sharp current as he sent signals down the wires meshed into his brain. Pistons flexed and pipes vented as he used these precise controls, eking every last ounce of power from Number Five’s engine. With a burst of speed he darted past the first car. Momentum building, he swiped his next opponent on a wide bend, sending him into a spin. Brakes squealed, mud flew, and Number Twenty-Two was left crumpled in a roadside ditch.

But Number Five was slipping too. Geordie felt the momentum as the car skidded across the track, wheels desperately scrabbling at the slippery road, threatening to send him into a spin. He hit the gas for all it was worth, nerves tingling with tension, and with a lurch Number Five shot forwards, seconds before they would have smashed sidelong into the trees.

Third place and gaining as they entered Dead Man’s Mile. Geordie’s eyes twitched, tiredness battling adrenaline and racing drugs. Ahead lay the finale of a sleepless week.

The lead pair were neck and neck, tightly focused on each other. Number Sixteen veered left, trying to force Nine off the road. Geordie seized his chance, drawing level on the wide-open right as the others ground flank against flank, splinters of paint and chassis armour flying. There was a crash as Nine’s worn tires lost their grip on the road, sending him skidding off into the undergrowth. Scents of pine needles and burning rubber drifted up through the air-con.

Sixteen looked up with a start, shocked that he still had competition. This close, Geordie could see sweat running down his opponent’s face, bloodshot eyes locked onto his own. The other driver glared malevolently at Geordie and revved his engine into a last dash, pulling ahead with a sneer of triumph.

Geordie felt Number Five’s strain, feeding up the wires and into his mind. Sick tinglings and raw aches pressed in on every side. Gears span as fast as they could endure. Pistons pounded their fiercest rhythm. Still it was not enough –Sixteen held the lead as they entered the final mile. One last reserve remained, a desperate measure built for this moment.

He triggered the red button.

With a series of dull thumps Number Five tore itself open. Tiny explosive bolts blew chunks of hardened chassis off into the trees. Fresh trauma crashed through Geordie’s nerves, physical jolts crossing with the agonising feed-back from the dismembered car.

Freed of weight and drag, Number Five gave a final, desperate surge. Engine screaming, wheels spinning, it leapt forward. Sixteen swung heavily over, set to crush Five’s sleek, vulnerable flank, but now it was too late. Number Five shot on, passing his opponent and, seconds later, the finish line. As crowds around the world went wild, Geordie slammed on the brakes and yelled with tension and delight. The fans surged forwards as Marios, his manager, yanked open Number Five’s door and hauled Geordie out into the light, holding him aloft for all to see, a naked brain and thin, boneless face in a clear, lightweight jar that dangled with wires and electronic sensors.

A reporter stepped forwards and pressed her microphone against the vessel’s foil speaker.

‘Geordie, do you ever miss your body?’ she asked.

Geordie stared down at the reporter’s long, wavy hair, her supple fingers curled around the microphone. He paused for a moment, then broke into a hearty grin.

‘What, that old thing?’ he said. ‘No, it was just holding me back.’

 

Originally published in Alienskin, October 2007

One Minute of Beauty

The sounds of rioting outside the window were almost drowned by the clatter of machinery within. Monsieur Duval’s power-looms pumped and pounded, steam spurting from pressurised pipes as warp and weft were bound together, meshing into one exquisite whole, a tapestry of the immaterial. Where spools of cotton should have been stood the medium, Madam Jaurès, and young Christos the Greek, his face suffused with the energy of genius as he drew swift, exotic melodies from his violin.

‘They’ve set fire to the bank,’ Henri said, fingering his dog collar as he glanced nervously out the window.

‘Good for them,’ Edouard replied, sipping from a crystal-cut glass of absinthe. ‘The old structures must be smashed, the boundaries torn down, for truth and beauty to triumph. Let Paris burn, as long as Christos fiddles.’

‘Will it work if he cannot be heard?’ Duval asked. The industrialist stood apart from the young artists, as if fearful of being consumed by the charisma that had lured him into their plans.

‘Of course!’ Edouard exclaimed, waving his glass. ‘Why would we need to hear his music when we can see it?’

He pointed to the cage that surrounded the musician, a funnel of precisely focused wires. From its mouth, a near-invisible strand stretched out, vibrating, towards the loom, like a slither of hot air sliced from a summer’s day. Another thread, glowing moonlight white, joined it from the glass bottle that encased Madam Jaurès, becoming weft to the music’s warp. Where they met, in the rattling heart of the loom, a sheet was forming. It gleamed like quick-silver as it rode into the air, twisting and soaring on a wind no-one could feel.

A whiff of smoke drifted in through a loose window. Edouard breathed deeply, feeling freedom fill his lungs, the joy and determination of the unrestrained mob. He poured more absinthe, passed Duval a glass.

‘It is almost time,’ he said. ‘Let the borders fall. Let art and industry become one. Let our souls touch the beyond.’ Knocking back his drink, he cast the glass to the floor, watching it shatter into shards of light. Then he was running down rusted iron steps, across the factory floor, Henri in his wake. They grabbed the end of the shining cloth. It was almost impossible to hold, writhing in and through their hands. It felt like sunrise and birdsong on their fingertips, too pure and wonderful to contain. But they dragged it across the room, more cloth emerging behind them as Christos played and the medium twitched and frothed, channeling the will of the spirits.

They bound the corners to the brass pipe-organ that loomed against the east wall. At once, the pipes began to hum, a sweet harmony that rose to the rafters, scattering dust into the air.

‘Pray!’ Edouard exclaimed. ‘Pray like you mean it!’

Henri sank to his knees, rosary in one hand, a half-empty bottle clutched in the other for comfort, his lips twitching. His breath seemed to coallesce into tiny spots of light, settling like dew on the sheet. Edouard grabbed a brush and tray of paints, this miracle becoming his canvas as he sketched graceful curves of soothing colour across its surface, even as it began to fade.

Above their heads, a fog was forming, seeping from the apertures of the pipes.

Maxine, Duval’s assistant, burst into the room.

‘The King,’ she exclaimed, ‘The King has fled, and…’

Her words trailed off as she stared at the thing emerging from the fog, its wings fluttering and face radiant. It soared down onto the canvas, became at one with it as the machinery ceased clattering, all eyes turning to gaze in wonder.

Edouard felt as though his soul had been kissed.

‘Please,’ he whispered, ‘Just one minute of beauty. For everyone.’

The angel smiled and lifted into the air, rising through the roof. The noise outside the window stopped, and for sixty seconds no sound was heard in Paris but the ticking of pocket watches.

Then Edouard felt the moment of rapture fade. Outside, the shrieks and smashing began once more as cavalry charged the barricades.

He took a long pull on the bottle of absinthe and lit a cigarette.

‘I grant them the purest epiphany, and still they return to old habits. What must an artist do to shake men from their rut?’

He shook his head.

‘What now?’ Henri asked.

Edouard shrugged. ‘How can my art ever again match this moment? We have created serenity in the heart of the human storm, and seen that our public does not care. What point in continuing? I shall become a baker instead, or maybe a carpenter, work out my remaining decades in fruitful labour.’

He paused, staring at the burning tip of the cigarette, the smoke coiling from its fiery point.

‘Unless…’ he murmured, glancing down at his paint pots, empty of soft blues and greens. There was still plenty of red. A grin split his face. ‘Tell me, Henri, what do you know about demons?’

 

This story was previously published in Alienskin Magazine, August 2008

 

The Hunter in the Stacks

There’s something of the tribal to academia, each group living within its own distinct territory and obscure language. And having talked with academics, there’s something of the hunter-gatherer to the way they’re funded too, desperately scrabbling for the low-hanging fruit of a withered public funding tree. My lastest story, The Hunter in the Stacks, is a riff on this theme, as the young academic goes forth to face the fearsome beasts of learning. It’s in the new issue of Flash Me Magazine, available free from their website.

So Cold It Burns

Cousin Charlie and I sat outside Lifetime Labs, waiting for Grandpa Jo. Vast granite faces loomed over us, radiating stern authority. Battered and worn by time, their frowns remained constant, gazing in scorn upon our lively youth. Fragments of ancient Egypt, dragged across the globe by McKenzie to give history to his post-modern folly of a house. The place now jutted with shining outlet pipes and rusting vents, put there by Life Systems, whose owner so loved the building that he moved his noisy, steaming processing plant inside.

Charlie strummed his guitar with calloused fingertips, filthily serenading the beauty of a long-dead actress. Across the road, willows were weeping into the Tyne, where a dog, tired, tottered to the ground and bent to lap desperately at the murky waters.

***

Inside the building, Grandpa Jo’s breath frosted against the shell of a softly humming sarcophagus. His fingers pressed against thick blue-tinted glass as he squinted tearfully at Grandma Joe’s face. Her cold purple beauty cut to his unsteady heart. The face of forty years ago, a vision that had carried him sane through long decades of prison camps, untouched by time’s unstoppable march.

‘Your wife’s contract specifies her revival should you be found alive,’ said the sharp young doctor. ‘Legally, however, the choice is yours. You can have her revived, leave her here, or even join her, saving yourself for the day when even age can be undone.’

To the medic, the words were business, an official mantra repeated daily.

Jo took his wrinkled hand from the glass, leaving behind five thin patches of frosted skin.

‘I need time to think,’ he said.

***

Grandpa Jo wanted to sit beneath the trees, so Charlie and I helped him across the street and onto a bench beneath the willows. He smiled as he gazed up into the branches.

‘We used to do this when we first met,’ he murmured. His eyes filled with joy, and then tears, as memory rode him hard through his past. ‘Just sit by the river, beneath the trees, and watch them blow in the wind.’ Wincing, he reached out and touched a leaf, blighted by the first yellow scars of Porrit’s Disease. ‘Everywhere I look, the trees are sick.’

‘A lot has changed while you were away, Grandpa,’ I said.

‘Of course it has,’ he said. ‘What bothers me is the things that haven’t.’

Beneath the willows, the river still drifted along, carrying its oily sheen down to the sea.

‘What happened to the trees?’ Grandpa Jo asked.

‘They tried to save them from the war,’ I explained. ‘So many were being lost during bombing raids and tank battles, someone was afraid we might lose all that fine greenery. So they built a special disease, a beautiful, benevolent bug that would make the trees grow quicker. Because if they grew up and reproduced faster, maybe they could replace themselves quicker than we were killing them. We could live in a green and pleasant land, even if it echoed with gunshots and screams.’

Grandpa looked up at the willow and the rust-like stains spreading through its fragile leaves, like cold autumn come in late spring. The wind, rushing past, lifted some leaves from the branches and they burst into dust before our eyes.

‘But a virus is still a virus,’ I continued. ‘It evolved, corrupted, grew beyond its purpose. The trees didn’t just grow faster. They died faster too. The war ended and people stopped dying, but not the trees.’

Grandpa’s gaze still drifted up through the branches, watching the thin memories of leaves scatter into nothingness.

‘So sad to see,’ he said. ‘A life on fast-forward, run to its end and crumbling away in a blink of an eye.’

He looked at me, or perhaps at my father, the two of us muddled sometimes in his mind – the son he had lost and the grandson he had met full-grown. Time stretched out as the wind caressed the river and Charlie sang folksongs to the listless dog. Eventually, Grandpa reached out a hand.

‘Help me up,’ he said. ‘I’ve left her waiting long enough.’

***

Grandpa Jo stood again in front of Grandma’s cryogenic tank. The scar tissue of his cheeks twitched uncontrollably in the damp, chill room. He felt every ache and tremor left by a lifetime of horror and hope. Liver-spotted fingers clenched arthritically at the head of a cane that kept a thrice-broken leg from giving way.

‘Look at me,’ Grandpa Jo said to the bemused young doctor. ‘I have longed for my wife, desperately, unceasingly. Here she is, so much like my memories that I cannot bare to see her face. How could such an angel want me? Or missing me still, could she embrace what I have become?

‘I am too old for her now, and too world-weary to believe in renewed youth. She will wait for the future alone, and I will dream of her in my lonely decay.’

He turned slowly from the tank, a tear welling in his eye.

***

As we walked away from Lifetime Labs, we passed the mongrel dog, still lying at the river’s edge. Its head dangled loosely now, trailing in the water as grease soaked up into its fur, tongue lapping lifeless in the tainted current.

This story was first published in Alienskin Magazine, February 2007.