The Long and the Short

This week I fin­ished the second, and final (ish), draft of a short story I wrote about a year ago. The ori­gin­al was entitled ‘The Inevitable’. Without giv­ing too much away, it con­cerned the return of a Canterburian cler­ic to his child­hood home in Cornwall. The Canterburian’s world is a par­al­lel of our own in which chil­dren are ‘read’ at an early age and giv­en the pre­cise date of their death. I was nev­er sure what this inform­a­tion would do to a soci­ety. I real­ised, sev­er­al weeks after writ­ing the first draft, that I wanted to get to the heart of some­thing that con­sist­ently amazes me about the human con­di­tion: people seem able to carry on regard­less of the fact that they are cer­tain to die. Where is the depres­sion? What cures it? This odd hero­ism makes a fit­ting sub­ject for a story, I think, and the first draft was a good stab at cre­at­ing the mood I was reach­ing for.

A few weeks ago, I was promp­ted by a friend to read A. L. Rowse’s ‘A Cornish Childhood’. It turns out that my friend’s moth­er nursed the nona­gen­ari­an Rowse in his final days at Mount Edgcombe Hospice, St Austell. I’m Cornish myself, so I was inter­ested to read about the child­hood of this great Oxford his­tor­i­an and pub­lic fig­ure. He was cer­tainly a com­plex indi­vidu­al, per­haps homo­sexu­al and strug­gling against it, and I was gripped by his con­stant attacks on des­tiny and fate. He was a self-made man who broke the yoke of his unin­tel­lec­tu­al fam­ily and ulti­mately tri­umphed. (One can’t help but feel very sorry for him; his love-hatred for Cornwall crippled him emo­tion­ally, while sim­ul­tan­eously provid­ing him with a drive to suc­ceed. His attacks on mem­bers of his fam­ily, such as his broth­er, are start­ling and dis­ap­point­ing.)

With Rowse in mind, I rewrote ‘The Inevitable’ as ‘Coming Home’. The story is now set in the far future. The prot­ag­on­ist, Fairweather, shares some of Rowse’s pre­co­city — hope­fully, some of his voice too — and the story now attempts to fuse the feel­ing of inev­it­able death with the tri­umph (in the end, a fail­ure) of tihs man’s dig­nity and humil­ity. I’ll take the unusu­al step of includ­ing my story in this blog.

Coming Home

I have five days until my death. My fam­ily have arranged a farewell party for Saturday, which will be my last. That day will be fol­lowed by my last Sunday. On the Monday I will die. The date of that Monday is as famil­i­ar to me as my name or the dull angles of the house I grew up in, a house in a vil­lage by the sea. Cornwall: my life’s mag­net.

The Predictor came to our vil­lage when I was ten years old. His arrival was marked by a parade in which the vil­la­gers took on the roles of the Trickster, the Hero, the King, the Queen, and more: crude-drawn folk from the happy stor­ies of the day­time and the unhappy stor­ies of the night. My interest in his­tory grew from those stor­ies. That day, I fol­lowed the pro­ces­sion and tossed flowers onto the broken pave­ments, stop­ping occa­sion­ally to adjust my uncom­fort­able cos­tume. Through the twenty streets of the vil­lage, fol­low­ing its long corners and quick ups and downs, I flung flowers until I had no more. I was already awed by the parade and the sight of my empty bas­ket pitched me into a tan­trum. My fath­er, dressed as a fox, tossed me onto his shoulders and told me to clap in time with the drum­mer, which I did, and soon my tears had turned to air.

The next day, the Predictor arrived in St Austell on a train. I had nev­er seen a real train. It was a lar­ger than I ima­gined, but this did not blunt my con­fid­ence as I out­lined the prin­ciples of the steam engine to a young boy called Matthew, who stood in the Predicting queue behind me. A string band was play­ing on the plat­form and our par­ents had gathered behind a cor­don at the Par end. We chil­dren were to go first. Very few adults were Unpredicted. Though my moth­er and fath­er were not vis­ible and I was nervous, but Matthew, who was six months my juni­or, was close to pan­ic, so I made it my duty to settle him with talk of the steam prin­ciples. We had almost reached the head of the queue.

The steam causes the air in the pis­ton to expand, which pushes the pis­ton rod along­side the wheel.”

‘An the wheel turns,” he said.

That’s right.”

What if the wheel dun’t turn?”

I laughed. “Don’t be silly. It always turns.”

There were posters on the side of the train. I had seen those same posters dur­ing the parade the day before. ‘Be Predicted and Be Safe’. ‘Prediction is the Law’. ‘Knowledge is Power’. Pictures of healthy boys and girls show­ing tick­ets to their proud par­ents. An abstract sun­rise on a per­fect corn­field. Sunset on leaf­less trees.

The car­riage win­dows were smoked. Some of the older boys in the queue enter­tained us with talk of lurk­ing Arabian sul­tans, belly-dan­cers and swirl­ing purple smoke that would trans­port us to oth­er worlds. But I knew what was to be found inside the car­riage. My fath­er had told me. The Predictor was just a man with a list of names in book that was so heavy and so import­ant that it was chained to the floor of the car­riage, which itself was no more than an office. I relayed this to Matthew, who nod­ded. His hand, cling­ing to mine, was bone­less and slip­pery. I did not have a broth­er, but if I could have chosen one, I would have chosen Matthew.

A nurse-like lady waited by the door to the car­riage and put a hand on my shoulder as the girl before me climbed the lad­der-steps, made a turn of won­der in the ves­ti­bule, and pressed on into the car­riage prop­er. It took only minutes for her to be Predicted. In that moment, which stretched and stretched, the great engine of the train snorted and I thought of Billie, our pony, stand­ing on the cracked con­crete of the sta­tion car park with our pic­nic in his side-bags.

A door opened at the oth­er end of the car­riage, near the cor­don, and the girl stepped out into the arms of her moth­er, who had ducked beneath the rope to receive her. A red piece of paper fluttered in the girl’s hand as she was borne into the crowd.

Then the nurse’s hand lif­ted from my shoulder. Matthew let go of me too and I smiled at him so he would know everything was alright. He did not smile back.

The main com­part­ment was lar­ger than the hall of my father’s Reading Room. Three low chan­deliers lit the cham­ber. They were stud­ded with light-in-glass, and I shook my head at the toys our gov­ern­ment guarded. My fath­er and I had stud­ied the work of Dr Faraday but we had not man­aged to rep­lic­ate his fam­ous machine for the con­ver­sion of kin­et­ic energy into elec­tri­city. The elec­tric lights were not burn­ing, how­ever, and the smoked win­dows put the room into a nev­er-end­ing sun­set. At the end of it, a man was sit­ting behind a desk. He wore law­yerly clothes and did not look at me as I approached; he watched the chil­dren queuing on the plat­form. Closer, he was older, but his dusky eyes were kind. His desk warped under a stack of flat, leath­er-bound books.

He put a hand on one of them. “Name?”

Fairweather. Peter Fairweather.”

Can’t you chil­dren arrange yourselves alpha­bet­ic­ally?” he said gruffly, tug­ging a book from the bot­tom of the first pile.

I’m sure we can, sir.”

That was a rhet­or­ic­al ques­tion. A rhet­or­ic­al ques­tion -”

Is one that has no answer.” I added, bravely, “My fath­er is mas­ter of the Reading Room.”

For some, the churches of St Austell were the last sites of spir­itu­al asylum. People knelt in their ruins to pray to God, or what was left of him. For my part, I felt sanc­ti­fied only when I crossed the threshold of Reading Room. It had been salvaged by my fath­er from the old lib­rary. We had a set of Oxford dic­tion­ar­ies — the full second edi­tion — and I loved the onion-skin pages, the sun­light through the words. I ima­gined Oxford to be a place of great learn­ing. A city of lib­rar­ies, or one great lib­rary.

Reading Room?” The man looked at me. “Then you should read his books with great­er care. A rhet­or­ic­al ques­tion is one where an answer is not anti­cip­ated. That does not mean the ques­tion has no answer.” He shook his head once, and in the ges­ture I saw his life: town after town, child after child, and the struggle to con­tain his human­ity. “Your name?”

I almost did not answer. “Peter Fairweather.”

Fairweather, Fairweather, Fairweather.” When he found my entry, his expres­sion was not dis­sim­il­ar to my own upon find­ing a beau­ti­ful, arcane word in the Oxford dic­tion­ary. The old man turned to the desk behind him and pushed met­al levers on a port­able print­ing press. Soon, he turned back to me with a slip of red paper. It read, ‘You, Peter Fairweather, will die sev­enty-eight (78) years, four (4) months, and twenty-two (22) days hence.’

You may go,” he said.

I would like to ask why people are Predicted.”

He did not reply. He pre­ferred to watch the queue through the sun­set win­dows. Did he see chil­dren or num­bers? I smiled des­pite my frus­tra­tion. Children, num­bers: anoth­er ques­tion unanswered. I held my tick­et proudly as moth­er and fath­er received me on the plat­form. Seventy-eight more years! I felt destined to live forever.

*

The struggle is, of course, to make your des­tiny your own, even when it has been writ­ten. By the time I was a young man, the trains were com­ing through St Austell with great­er fre­quency as rails were reforged. The post came once a week, then once a day. The day after my twenty-first birth­day, my fath­er and I trav­elled to Exeter. It was the first time either of us had been out of Cornwall. Scholars had been col­lect­ing in Oxford for some years and now they wanted to reform an idea from antiquity: uni­ver­sity. In the vaul­ted space of Exeter cathed­ral, I took the entrance exam­in­a­tion along with two hun­dred oth­er boys and girls. Only one child could win the com­pet­i­tion for pas­sage to Oxford and, once there, board and study.

An inter­view fol­lowed the exam. I remem­ber sit­ting with fath­er before a tri­um­vir­ate of schol­ars. Each man wore clothes rich­er than out-of-town mar­keters, the richest people I knew. It was a dif­fi­cult inter­view. At its con­clu­sion, the chair­man asked fath­er if it was his wish that I attend Oxford. The ques­tion was not so straight­for­ward; few fam­il­ies, with the hard­ship of life at that time, could bear the loss of a young man without com­plaint.

Father star­ted his sen­tence again and again. Finally, he said, “I should like for’n to.”

Today, I am look­ing through the train win­dow as Cornwall approaches. My trunk is packed with the last of my pos­ses­sions. One of which is my robe for the office of Deputy Vice Chancellor of Brasenose College, Oxford. I will be bur­ied in it.

*

In the cot­tage of my young­er broth­er, who was born to my father’s new wife two years after my depar­ture to Oxford, I listen to the sea. It is fully dark and I am in bed. I pic­ture the waves as they founder and throw up the spit-surf, gritty and foam­ing. My brother’s young fam­ily, chaot­ic and charm­ing, has thrown me a party, because this will be the last night of my life. I am exhausted but no mat­ter how deep my body sounds, it will not reach the dark­ness of sleep while my mind buoys it so power­fully.

What waste this busi­ness amounts to.

The sea sound is tempered by the lazy thump of Hetta, my brother’s wife, mak­ing cheese for the mar­ket on Monday. The busi­ness of life, of waste, may observe a minute’s silence at my passing, but not a second more. I wish I could see my office in Brasenose one more time. There is a clock above the hearth that I stopped on the day of my wife’s death. It is dif­fi­cult to accept that a young­er Fellow will have already moved into my office. Jenkins, prob­ably. He was a stu­dent of mine, and a fine one. His gradu­ation was marked with mod­ern pageantry. It is a car­toon of the pageantry we, human­ity, once had. I recall the car­ni­val that pre­ceded the arrival of Predictor when I was ten years old. Such car­ni­vals are no longer seen, at least in St Austell. My broth­er, Garth, told me as much.

Garth has elec­tric light­ing through­out his home. I am an old man and unused to these things. We have a ghost-army of candle-light­ers at Oxford. Lanterns catch flame in their wake. Oh, I miss Oxford and its tra­di­tions, each one a tick at the same second, clock­work jammed.

I wake early in the morn­ing to a gath­er­ing of crows. My throat is sore from the sea air. It is six o’clock. I mut­ter a brief thank you that I am not yet dead: today is my last day on earth, and it began at mid­night. I might have died in my sleep…and yet I do not believe that my body, which is sturdy and faith­ful, if sleepy, will cease to work dur­ing the course of the day. I am more than eighty years old. In former times, men routinely lived to such an age. Though this age is rare today, I am sure my body will not unset my ghost without viol­ence.

I flick through the pos­sib­il­it­ies as idly as a gam­bler thumbs through a deck of cards. A wooden beam might fall on my skull. A pack of moor dogs — rarer these days — might draw me apart. A horse’s kick. A fall down the stairs. A knife in my back.

A cup of tea steams on my bed table. Listening to the crows, I sip it. I have con­sumed a num­ber of cups of tea. This num­ber was set at my birth. It is large, but finite, and has coun­ted down over my years. Tea with my wife. Tea with the oth­er Fellows. Tea with the under­gradu­ates. As I feel the steam on the white stubble of my lip, I know that the num­ber is now one. This is my last cup.

Garth knocks at my door. I bid him enter. We talk about my funer­al.

Tom Perrick, he reck­ons some lads up Foxhole should be able to play that song of yours. What did ee call it?”

‘Let It Be’.”

‘Etta’s goyn lay on sand­wiches, cakie stuff. And beer for they who want it.”

Please thank her for me.”

Garth sits on the edge of the bed. He picks at the cal­luses on his huge hands and I remem­ber his child­hood, which I sampled each Christmas and Easter. He regards me, I think, more as an eccent­ric uncle than a broth­er. “Do ee believe in it?”

In the Predictor? Of course.”

Some of us reck­on tis only some­thing to keep us in our place.”

Go on.”

He looks at me, and sud­denly I am giv­ing my final tutori­al. “Why do they do it to us?”

They say it’s a book that was sent from the future.”

He thumps his knee. “But why? And how can it come from the future when the future hasn’t happened yet? Only now is hap­pen­ing.”

In Oxford, I knew a man who was driv­en insane by the thought of his death. Two weeks before his Deadline, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trig­ger.”

Did he die or no?”

Yes, he died. Two weeks later.”

Garth stands and walks to the door. “We’ll have some break­fast.”

Garth, what would you do if you knew the date that a per­son would die, and the per­son did not?”

I’d have to tell ‘em, I s’pose. Gently, mind.”

Good man.”

See you down­stairs.”

Yes.”

I do not eat break­fast. I dress and leave the cot­tage through the front door. Bones, the dog, licks his lips as I pass his bas­ket. In his eyes I see Matthew, the little boy who stepped into the train car­riage after me. I waited for Matthew even as my moth­er tugged at my arm. I wanted us to com­pare res­ults: mine was an A, first-class. What tick­et would he receive?

There was no sign of Matthew for sev­er­al minutes, and the crowd grew nervous. The string band was shushed. The nurse guard­ing the car­riage entrance climbed inside to fix the hold-up. By this time I was acutely anxious. When my moth­er tugged my arm again, I pulled away from her furi­ously. I put one foot on the plate with the inten­tion of re-enter­ing the car­riage to get Matthew. But, ulti­mately, I could not; the nurse was com­ing out. Matthew clung to her chest.

I tapped him on the knee as he was passed, without touch­ing the ground, to his fath­er. His red tick­et fluttered to the ground. “What is it?” I asked him. Matthew was lost in his tears and could not answer me.

I crouched for his tick­et, read it, and tried to stand. I fell onto my hands. Mother scooped me to my feet and pressed away my own tears with her gloved thumb. I showed her the tick­et. It read, ‘You, Matthew Rowe, will die today.’

The wind is sharp on the cliff’s prow. Below, great cym­bals of water crash against the rock. During my fall, I watch the rocks loom. Cornwall: my mag­net. I will die today. A rhet­or­ic­al ques­tion answered. I strike the rock and bounce once before com­ing to rest. Garth will find my body without too much dif­fi­culty. At the last — with some pride, my body lingers a few seconds more, and takes the last word as a bloody cough — my des­tiny is my own.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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