Monday, December 27, 2010


"It was probably the floating that got her, she thought. Her thoughts went where they would, touching the surface of many things, going down a few brightly lit alleys, understanding what they saw instinctively and deeply. The true past was there along with an imagined one, together with memories of dreams, and the possible futures combined with impossible ones, and they all mixed with a false present to create something that might have been wonderful if she had been able to get up and physically live it. While she floated she could believe it was real, that it had been, that it was, that it would be, and there were no contradictions, no bad bits, nothing went wrong, nothing mattered.

She could travel the world on a floating carpet. She could revisit any place she had been to, relive any experience she had had there, and it would be perfect. Her memory was sharp, every detail stood out, she could see clearly the stonework on monuments she had paid little attention to, the goods on display in shops and stalls that had not interested her as she passed, the way the sun lit up a corner of a room where she had been present at a meeting, the way it went down on a beach she had been to on holiday with someone who had left her long ago, the detail of the shadows it cast in a bedroom she would never see again. She could move through streets she had seen once years before and they were as familiar to her as the streets of Camden Town; she could drift among the spires of ancient cathedrals at the heart of mediaeval cities, or across the rooftops of skyscrapers and apartment blocks, and observe the activities of the people below as they walked and ran, bought and sold, stopped and talked, rested, played, or stole, looked happy, worried, interested, morose, busy, bored or dangerous. She could read the feelings on their faces, she knew where they were going, where they had come from and why, and she knew where she had seen them all before, and if they had spoken, what they had said to each other.

She could go down and join them, appearing suddenly as another face in the crowd, another shopper, walker, passer-by, one more element in the scene that was being played out eternally in the place she had chosen to be. she spoke to the people, renewed friendships, mended relations that had broken down irrevocably, and exhibited effortlessly blinding repartee to good-looking men who had left her to go back to their attractive but stupid wives. She could pick up cheaply bits of statuary and furniture that she had wanted for ages, and this time they would not be fake, damaged or hugely overpriced. She haggled confidently and successfully, and what she bought was of exquisite taste and never turned out to be the wrong colour for the wallpaper.

The weather was perfect, it would even rain in Timbuktu if she wanted it too, and she had known sunshine in Manchester in March, and the restaurants in Monte Carlo served the finest lobster all year round and the man she was with would always pay. Their conversation would be easy and intimate, he would fall in love with her, he would have none of the defects that most men seemed to have and she would do or say none of the stupid things that always led to the tension, misunderstanding, confusion, suspicion, mistrust and distance which finished every attempt at a serious relationship that she had had. While she floated, and manipulated this other mind, it was easy. There were no hazards, no one remembered things she wanted forgotten, no one noticed things they shouldn’t have, no one interpreted anything other than in the way she intended, no one wanted anything she wasn’t able to give, no one hid anything that mattered from her, making her guess what she had to say or to do or to offer or to be, and getting it wrong.

Susan often liked to be alone while she floated. She could have people around her, as background, as a form of company, to serve her, but not to require anything of her or even be aware of her, not to judge her, speak to her, block the sun, or have any memory of her unless she wanted them to have it. At times there is nothing like having an entire Caribbean beach to yourself, with a bar and a barman who laughs at everything you say, understands why you are there and when you need another chilled rum, and never closes until you want to leave. A beach of white sand and clear green water, both apparently limitless, and a hammock that doesn’t turn itself inside out every time you move, and a in the distance children having fun, people walking and laughing happily, but never between you and the water, old men at the bar telling jokes that are just funny enough, and talking about local matters with just the right level of interest, and a hundred yards away, a hotel with a good restaurant and a comfortable bed for when you are tired of doing nothing. Not that she needed to sleep when she was floating. Rest, yes, often, but not sleep.

And at other times she visited people. There was times when she had to revisit someone, at a specific moment and in a specific place, to have the conversation they should have had, to do what they should have done but did not, to change a single detail of the encounter, a phone that rang, or that didn’t, a taxi that came too early, a wedding ring that should not have existed, a doubt in the mind of one of them that ruined everything else, a painful tooth, a badly chosen dish, a missed implication, a moment of fear. So many things that could matter so much and change entire lives, and how easy it was when she floated to make a small adjustment and everything was all right again. How easy it was.

She could invent the future, too. She met people she wanted to see again, and they enjoyed each others company in the ways that she wanted. She saw people she had not seen for a long time, lost friends from her youth, colleagues promoted out of the firm, attractive neighbours who didn’t seem to look at her carefully enough, and they would be as successful as she wanted them to be, as happy as she chose, as attentive as her whim might decree. And they always paid for dinner.

Once she had identified the best, and only bought the best, the floating was without any limits. She could visit the origins of the universe, and contemplate the Big Bang. Here there were fewer details, but it was full of immensely powerful points of light, and infinite darkness, and exploding colours of pure energy which should have swallowed her up but she was protected by her belief in her own invincibility. Nothing could touch her when she was floating. She saw hydrogen atoms go past her at the speed of light, and neutrinos drift by on their way to the end of time, she saw everything that would ever be, and everything she would ever experience, but, like in dreams, it was gone from her the moment she returned to herself. But to know it was there, and that she could see it, was wonderful. The feeling did not disappear immediately with the knowledge, and she could hold onto it for a while as she returned to life.

She could go to the end of the universe, and found it relaxing, but not interesting. The entropy of the universe rose until there was complete uniformity of energy and substance, everything that had ever existed was distributed so evenly that there seemed to be nothing at all. Nothing moved, nothing shone, and the nothingness, which was infinite, was expanding constantly to fill an even greater infinity which arose around it to accommodate it. It was not quite dark, it was possible to see the nothing, but it was not lit with any form of light. There were times, rare times, when she would visit this place, to escape from everything, to escape even from the floating itself. To enter dreamless sleep.

More interesting was the end of the world. The sun, brilliant red, expanding through space at tremendous speed, to engulf the Earth and boil it into its component particles, the heavy elements that had been born in the hearts of stars finally being destroyed in the heart of the dying sun, and returning to the hydrogen they had once been. This was entertainment for a Saturday night, and not old films on the television or clubs full of loud music and drunken children. It was a strangely satisfying sensation to contemplate this from within and to know that there would never be anything else ever again. She could watch it from the surface of the Earth or just above, and see the flames sweep over her and in a moment effect a purifying, total annihilation. The Earth whose death she witnessed was no longer inhabited by human beings, nor by any identifiable form of life. The patterns of the continents had changed so much that they were completely unrecognisable, and the very colours of the planet were closer to yellow and red than to the familiar blue and green. It was an old Earth, not ready for sudden death, but past maturity; an Earth that had lived, and had little more to contribute.

The night sky drew her at times, when she would rise up into the darkness to be among the stars, and look down on the sleeping world, that seemed to be at peace. She rose above the details, the suffering, the vice, the dark deeds in the streets, the illness and fighting in the houses, the loneliness, the poverty, the longing, and she saw only the comforting blanket of quiet and dark, and the equally comforting points of light that gave hope to those who needed it and dispelled the fears of the nervous. She could ride on the moon, see what it saw, explore its bright and rocky surface, stand at the night line with one foot in the dark and the other in the sun, when the playful mood was on her, climb the sides of craters and slide down into the dust, her skirt riding up behind as it had when she had gone down the slide in the park as a girl. She could leave the surface and rise to one of the Lagrangian points of the Earth and Moon, and sit there, motionless, feeling no gravity, drawn to neither of them, bobbing about in stable equilibrium. Another kind of floating, one the universe and the laws of physics created for her, she had no need to do anything. From that point she could watch both Earth and Moon, and contrast the light as it reflected from them, and compare the size of them- they looked almost exactly the same from where she was. She could not decide at those times whether she preferred the brilliant white of the moon or the cooler and more varied tones of the Earth.

She surfed on the rings of Saturn and whirled in the red spot of Jupiter, she rolled and bounced along the canals and rills of Mars, and walked on the cold mass of Pluto just so she could say she had. She climbed in the Himalayas and descended into the cones of volcanoes, she swam on the ocean floor in the Marianas trench and observed the strangeness that was life at those depths. She bathed within clouds and warmed herself in forest fires."


Vincent said...

Olé! A magnificent chunk of prose. If this is chapter 1 of a novel, I’m clamouring for chapter 2. Though I don’t know where you might go from here.

CIngram said...

Actually it's chapter 49, just sitting in the middle of an (unfinished) novel which is largely about fantasy of many different types. I keep trying to finish it, but haven't beeen able to yet (and it's not the only one, either).