“But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.”
Tom threw his words into the sea. He stamped on his staff and tossed it on the sand. The spell was broken.
He smiled –
– and turning round, saw his son running down the beach with a smile as wide as his arms. Tom ran and picked him up and in that embrace, the time he had remaining became forever.
Ripped from his sleep, Jack found his bedroom pitching and rolling, his books hitting the floor like birds shot from the sky. Frightened voices shouted somewhere in the street – Mercy on us! We split, we split! – the rain pounding the window with its thousand tiny fists.
He fell out of bed as the bed slid down the floor, then shouted for help as foal-like he staggered to his feet, throwing back the curtains to reveal, instead of the street, an ocean of brawling waves.
His wardrobe fell. His bedroom door flew open and through it he glimpsed the deck of a ship, washed by waves and lit by streaks of lightning. He slipped and hit the wall then tried to stand, but floored again by the force of the wind he lay on his back, hoping whatever was happening would stop and go away. But if anything he could feel it was getting worse. He closed his eyes against the pain.
The door slammed shut.
He looked up.
A small, mantrap-chandelier swayed on its chains, grinning with its few remaining candles, spitting drops of wax whilst flinging light and shadows across the now wooden walls and ceiling. Trying to stand and understand where on earth he was, Jack too was thrown against the walls.
“Dad!” he called. “Dad!”
Several boxes slid across the floor, each full of his dad’s old possessions.
And that was when he remembered; his dad had died ten days ago.
‘Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove: O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark, That looks on tempests and is never shaken…’
I’m standing on the promenade looking out to sea.
It’s dark and a storm is blowing in the distance.
I close my eyes and listen, breathing in the sound.
Even the sea whispers when the night falls.
It’s such a long way from the day, when I’d watched the water fold upon the sand; when children laughed and ran from its touch. Then the sea made a mirror for the sky. Now it swallows the universe whole. At night it has no surface, only a depth.
I open my eyes and wipe them. All the crowds have gone and all that remains are footprints left like shoes in the sand.
A sandcastle falls to ruin.
There is I think, as I pick up my bag, no more lonely a sight in the world than this.
I’d loved ships as a child. Proper ships with sails. I’d had one suspended from my bedroom ceiling – Jack has a spaceship – and every night when I lay in bed, I would think myself aboard and wonder where it would take me.
It has been said – although of course it’s nonsense – that when Columbus arrived in the New World, the Native Americans looking out to sea didn’t see his ships. The vessels were so beyond the scope of their experience they were all but invisible. Only the waves – displaced by the hulls – hinted at their presence like light bent around an otherwise invisible black hole. Nonsense as I’ve said. But the idea intrigues me; that things so big and so there could be invisible to those staring directly at them.
My death – that remover, that great alteration – might be like that. And staring out to sea, I can’t help but wonder if it’s there – like Columbus – waiting to whisk me away to a new world.
‘Ships always come with the promise of adventure.’ That’s what my dad said when he built mine. Is that what death is? An adventure?
When I was seventeen the ship fell and smashed as I slept and despite my dad’s best efforts it never ‘sailed’ again. It sat in bits in a bag until the bag disappeared. My dad too disappeared a few months later. There he was going to work, saying goodbye and shutting the door. Next, he dropped dead; a heart-attack just outside his office.
As regards my illness and my own mortality, I’m scared of many things, but two keep me awake at night.
One, the thought that my ten year old son, Jack, will remember me only through my inevitable decline, as the man who struggled in the end to remember who he was or who those were around him. (But then, what do I remember most from my own childhood? The ship hanging from the ceiling along with its promise of adventure? Or the wreck on the bedroom floor? I content myself that it’s the ship.)
And two, that death is not just the end of me but also of my love. That’s the thing which pains me most. That somehow through death I’m depriving Jack of the love I’ve yet to give him.
Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove…’
I leave the promenade and walk back through the town, a place made secret by the dark. Even death, the greatest secret of all, is made the more obscure when streetlights flicker into life.
In the day it has no place.
It’s just a hand that ruffs up hair on the Ghost Train.
Five hundred years later
Alone on the bridge, Commander Keening gazed out at the vast expanse of space through which his crippled ship hacked a forlorn path. After so many years with the United Archives Service, he should, he thought, be used to that awful void. But every time he threw his eyes into its abyss he became a child gulping down the night-soaked corners of his bedroom. His dad had always been the one to smile ‘there’s nothing there’. But nothing had always been the problem.
Nothing was the monster that took his dad away.
Nothing was the dark beneath his bed; between the stars.
Two days ago, a meteor strike had killed six of his crew; an engine had been lost and the ship’s main thrusters damaged beyond repair. As a result and against the advice of his Captain, Commander Keening had turned the ship around to try another landing back on Earth.
“There’s only fuel enough for three or four weeks,” he’d said. “After that we’d be drifting. Helpless.”
“But if we land again on Earth there’s no chance we’ll ever return home. The archives have been abandoned. Ours was the last mission. They won’t send another ship to get us. We have to carry on towards Mars. Far better to drift and hope that we’ll be found than spend our last years on Earth.”
He looked again out the window and skimmed his eyes across the grim reaches of space, just as death might soon cast his memory against the vast scale of forever. They could carry on towards Mars but the thought of losing power terrified him. To drift in space was a death cognisant of every passing mile in its journey towards infinity.
“Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back…
Better to try and land,” he’d told the Captain again. “And wait for the elves to return.”
For they would return one day.
Despite the damage Man had done, the Earth would, in the course of unfathomable time, right itself again. It would once more be beautiful and it was better for him to die on Earth and let his atoms mingle in that restoration than to drift in a seamless and unremembering void.
It was a few days after his dad’s diagnosis when Jack had returned from school to find him sitting at the kitchen table. Pouring a cup of tea he’d explained what it was they were going to do that night and every night until he was better. “Things have been difficult,’ he’d said, his hand on top of Jack’s, “and the coming months are going to be just as hard, maybe harder. Things will feel different, almost as if we’re in another world.”
With this he’d rolled out a large sheet of paper, weighing down the corners with whatever came to hand; his wallet, his glasses, a pen and mobile phone. He’d looked up and smiled as only he could smile. “It will all become clear. I promise.” Then he’d paused, as if to get it clear in his own mind first.
“I want you to think of the time ahead as being like a journey and that this sheet of paper is a map of that journey where we have to travel from one side to the other.” Jack had listened intently and watched his dad take a pen and draw the outline of an island. Jack loved drawing maps of imagined places, something his dad knew well enough for they were all over his bedroom wall. ”All journeys have a beginning,” he’d explained, pointing to the island’s western coast, “and this is ours. This is where we are now; where our journey begins.”
Three months later, as Jack looked out his bedroom window, the question which he couldn’t bear to consider was where the journey would end.
It had been a few days since his dad had gone away – to try and learn the lines for his forthcoming role as Prospero in The Tempest – and yet within that short space of time, forever had tried to hide inside the house, much as the size and distance of a star can steal itself within a pinprick of light. Jack missed him but knew at least he’d see him again soon when he and his mum would join him for two weeks by the sea.
At least he could see the stars his dad could see, which, at that moment, were closer than the streetlights on the other side of the road.
The phone rang.
His mum called.
“Jack. It’s dad for you!”
From my hotel room I call Jack and play our game for an hour. I spread the map on the floor – it’s much too big for the desk – and ask him which square we’re on. Lucky for me he remembers.
Since I first drew the map I’ve overlaid a grid and numbered every square. Wherever Jack lands I read part of a story then present him with with a choice.
“But we’re on another map,” he tells me. “The one with the town…”
I remember now and grab the right map; one of a dozen I’ve made in a bid to slow the journey down. I look for square seventeen and put down the counter.
“Ah yes. Here we are.”
I flick through my exercise book and look for the number.
“Let us begin. You open the door to the house and walk inside. It’s cold and smells of damp. You enter a room on your right and find a man seated at a table. He sits with his back towards you. Do you: a) call him or b) leave the room?”
Back in his room and dressed in his best silver, Commander Keening tried to record a last message. Once they’d returned to Earth there would be little chance of further communication; as the Captain had said, theirs was the last mission. Earth was to be abandoned along with anyone left among the empty archives. He stared at the lens of the Holocomm – unblinking while it made him a ghost before he was even dead –then reached for a tattered book he’d found in the hold; a 1990 publication of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Thumbing through its pages, he found the words he was looking for. If anyone could say goodbye it was the immortal Bard; a man whose words, for almost a thousand years had – unlike the pages on which they were printed – never worn out.
The text was that which he’d read on first leaving Earth all those years ago and which he’d read the crew several days ago on leaving, what should have been, one last time.
‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves…”
His eyes filled with tears as in his mind the words became the things which they described, as tangible as if they were there and as painful by their absence. His father had often told him how, when he was young, he would sometimes walk with his mother through those last remaining woods. Now the lost trees, missing alongside those lakes and groves, were, for Keening, as much his father’s absence. Such was why he’d volunteered to lead this last mission. To see the Earth one last time and find his dad among the trees that had already returned.
He read the line again…
‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves, And ye that on the sands with printless foot Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him When he comes back; you demi-puppets that By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make, Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid, Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds, And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault Set roaring war…’
The sea winked. A sunlit shard of shattered days left unswept in the distance. Every year Jack had won the prize for being the first to spot it. Now, in the car, just he and his mum were playing, the winner unknown to either.
As they drove down the hill towards the town the sea threw wider its embrace.
There was the bunting slung across the streets.
The shops selling ice-cream, buckets and spades.
There was the beach and amusement arcade.
Their favourite cafe for cake and tea.
Jane parked the car outside the ‘Grand Hotel’ – home for the next ten days. She sat back in her seat and sighed as if she’d held her breath all the way there.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad was it?” she said, as much to herself as Jack.
Jack tried to smile. It had been quick. Landmarks left unannounced. The first glimpse of the sea still uncredited.
They took their bags inside, checked in and dragged them down the long carpeted corridor to room 416. The ‘room’ was actually three – the ’penthouse’ as the receptionist jokingly called it; a living room with TV and sofas, two bedrooms and a bathroom. There was a corner ‘kitchenette’ with a microwave, small fridge and kettle.
“That’ll do fine,” his mum said. “I doubt we’ll be eating in. Not much anyway.”
Whilst his mum slept off the journey, Jack made a tea and looked at the view, which, along with the hotel – inside and out – could have used a lick of paint. When his mum woke two hours later he was still looking.
“I’ll have a tea then we’ll go for a walk,” she said, busying herself with the cases. She’d brought Dave’s clothes to spare him the effort of carrying a case on the train. He was due to arrive in a couple of days, once he’d finished supervising the move to the new house. “Then we’ll see if we can find a place that dad would have liked.”
She put the ashes on the table and screwed up the plastic bag she’d brought them in, speaking as if they were going out for ice-creams. Jack said nothing. His dad had liked everywhere here. What were they going to do? Scatter him on the beach? In the sea? Leave a pile like spilled salt on a table in the cafe? He watched the seagulls, shrapnel-like, rip the air outside with shrieks and caws.
‘It’s been three years,’ she’d said in the days before they’d left. ‘It’s what he wanted Jack. It’s time.’
She always said things like that about time. ‘Make time’, when she was cross. ‘Time heals all wounds’ was another. She said it to make Jack feel better. But of course, it never did.
“Are you going to change?” she asked in between sips, her sing-song tone of voice halfway between exasperation and pleading. She was smiling, but Jack knew she wanted him to wear something else, something colourful, rather than the black jeans and black t-shirts he’d been wearing for over a year. “Or are you going to sit on the beach like that?”
Jack just shrugged remembering how, a few months back, Dave had called him Victoria, speaking as usual with his foot planted firmly in his mouth. When Jack had asked ‘why Victoria?’, Dave had explained how Queen Victoria only wore black in the years after Albert’s untimely death…
A look from Jane and he’d stopped. He never said it again.
“You wear what you like love,” she said, drinking down her tea. “You know I’m only joking.”
The elastic in Jack’s smile had long gone, but he tried one nevertheless. His mum’s smile had also changed, becoming instead that strange sort with which people hide the fact they’ve nothing more to say.
As they made their way to the lift, Jane stopped and told Jack to wait downstairs at reception. “I left my purse,” she said, walking back to the room. “Won’t be long.” Jack gave a nod and walked on down the corridor, slowing to look at the various views hanging on the walls; Venice, Corfe Castle, people in the town a hundred years ago, gazing out at a world in which they were long dead. Door after door – whose numbers seemed, not only at odds with the the hotel’s size, but also completely random – came and went with no sign of either the lift or the stairs. He stopped – they hadn’t been that far from the room – then carried on, feeling as if he were going round in circles.
Minutes passed with still no sign of the stairs. His pace quickened as panic crawled around him. Then a boy appeared, dressed, like Jack, from head to toe in black and carrying a large, ceramic jug. Jack supposed he worked there.
“Can you tell me where the stairs are?” he asked, not a little embarrassed. The boy, whose pale face sat in stark contrast to his clothes, didn’t reply. Instead, quickening his pace, he threw his eyes over his shoulder at Jack before disappearing into room 17.
The pain, like the food, never changed. Sitting at the table, Ferdinand pulled up his shirt and felt for the wounds on his stomach. He touched the stitches and hissed his discomfort. How was it he wasn’t dead? Half-murdered by agents of Philip II; left half-alive with wounds that wouldn’t heal – he should have died days ago, weeks or even…
How long had he been like this?
All he could recall was walking late one night in London; May 7th, 1588. He’d had an invitation for his friend Stephen Greene to dine with him and his wife, Anne, in two weeks’ time. He’d taken a shortcut through a tangled nest of alleyways and found his way blocked by two men, who, even in the dark, he recognised as Spanish. He’d greeted them in their native tongue and made to walk between them. But they caught him and stabbed him, stealing the invitation and making good their escape. The next thing he knew, he was back here at home. But where was everyone else?
He picked up his wife’s looking glass and found his face. Just as he left it, he thought, then turned the mirror to the wounds. Red and raw they were nonetheless clean. Was someone tending him whilst he slept? His wife perhaps? The servants?
A man like him? One of Walsingham’s best? There was scarce a footpad in London who wouldn’t fail to rouse him.
He reached for his knife and listened…
“Quién eres tú?” he asked, leaning on the table. “I know you’re there.”
He stood and turned, the blade pointing north to its quarry; a boy dressed in black, carrying a jug which he dropped.
“I’m sorry…” said the boy, as the wine ran over the floor. They were never supposed to speak. “I thought you were asleep.”
“Leave that,” Ferdinand barked, looking up from the mess. “Where’s my wife? My children?”
The boy stared, eyes wide. “I don’t know…”
“You don’t know?”
Ferdinand bent down, took a piece of the broken jug and having put his knife on the table turned it in his hands. He recognised it well enough; painted as it was with his and his wife’s names – Ferdinand and Anne – along with the year in which they were married: 1577.
“I don’t recall your face,” he said, picking up another shard. Then he found the mark on the base: one head with two faces. He’d seen it some place before. “Wait,” he commanded, as the boy made to leave. He looked at his knife. The same mark was stamped on its ivory hilt. He found it too on the table and chair. “What is this?” he asked holding up the base of the jug. “A head with two faces? What does it mean?”
“I don’t know sir,” the boy replied.
“You don’t know much do you?!” Ferdinand said, falling back in his chair, the pain from his stomach folding him in two. “You don’t know where my wife is. My children. Are you listening boy?”
He turned but the boy had gone and all that was left was a label on the floor. Ferdinand fell to his knees and picked it up.
Ceramic jug Staircase 12, Corridor 33, Room 17
The same boy he’d seen walking in, left room 17 without the jug and hurried on down the corridor, glancing back anxiously as he went. Thinking it strange, Jack walked back to the door and, seeing it was slightly open, kicked it with his foot. It smelled strange inside as if it were damp, the cold from within wrapping itself around him like a snake. He was aware too of a sound, a ticking, like someone scratching behind the wall.
“Are you still here?”
He turned with a start to see his mum walking towards him. Behind her was their room: 416.
“Didn’t you want to go downstairs without me?” she said jokingly, rubbing her son’s head.
Jack smiled then frowned. The door that was open was now closed – room 411 – and looking at the numbers on the rest, they were just as they should have been: 410, 409, 408…
And the stairs. They were right there. A few paces on and to the right.
“Come on,” his mum said. “It’s looking nice outside.”
Everything about the town was just how Jack remembered; the funfair, the junk shops, the shape of the cliff redoubt, the sweep of shops and amusement arcades bordering the beach. And yet, for all that was familiar, it felt like somewhere he’d never been before. He was like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, somehow remembering the craters.
He remembered as a small boy getting lost on this very beach. He must have been only five or six but could still remember how it had felt – the dizzying nauseousness as he stumbled looking for his dad. It was the same then as it was now; a shiver in his blood that didn’t reach his skin. He’d felt as lost children do, that he’d never see his parents again and found on the faces of all those strangers milling in the midst of his anxiety, smiles as alien as the world in which he was now standing.
Two hours later, Jack and his mum were sitting in a cafe, one to which they’d been with his dad many times before.
“Are we agreed then love?” his mum asked.
Jack was staring at a table on the other side, one at which he remembered them sitting the last time they were there. An old lady, lost on one of the high-backed seats, chased a piece of cake with a teaspoon. The seat opposite was where Jack’s dad had sat; emptier now than anything he’d ever seen before.
“Are we agreed?”
“I said yes.”
They drank their drinks in silence. Jane flicked through her phone, looking for a message from Dave. She too recognised the table; the chair at which Tom had once sat, laughing at his own jokes.
On the way back to the hotel Dave called. The move was done and he was busy unpacking.
“You don’t have to do it all by yourself,” said Jane.
Of course, Jack couldn’t hear what Dave was saying. All he could think about were the cardboard boxes full of his dad’s things. No doubt Dave had put them up in the attic already.