Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Shadows of Science: finding a new voice

In a short article posted early in June last year (2016) I was, yet again, musing on the topic of ‘scientists as real-life people’. The post was catalysed by my discovery, in a book on words which have no clear-cut equivalent in English, of a Japanese word which encapsulates the act of gazing into space without thinking about anything in particular. The post was titled Boketto. As an experiment, for my own benefit more than anyone else’s, I appended to the core reflection a short story I had written as a piece of ‘homework’ for the creative writing group I was a member of. However, I later got cold feet and deleted it. This may have been premature. Having now written several short stories for one writing group or another (and even a competition-winning shape/concrete poem, see here) I have spotted a distinct theme which prompts me to reconsider. I have no desire at present to move my blog away from its core raison d’être – namely to offer posts on being a scientist and on public engagement – but it is evident to me that even my creative writing exercises derive their essence from my life as a scientist. The fact that they are all informed by my experiences as a scientist and an academic ought not to be a surprise of course, given that all authors – even the very amateur ones like me – write out of themselves in some way.

What I intent to do, therefore, is to post a handful of them and allow those interested in reading them to do so and to come to their own verdict. They are all reasonably short, varying from about 1200 to 2000 words, and have had the significant benefit of constructive criticism from fellow amateurs more talented than me; one of the stories even made it to the final ten in a local competition and is due to appear in a small anthology. In this introductory post I will try to draw out some of the more direct links with the events, themes, places or follies of my career. It might also be of interest to fellow creative writers out there if I try to give you a ‘feel’ for the background to each of the exercises: what were the tasks set by our group leaders that gave rise to the stories you read. I have posted them separately, in the order in which they were written, and have included links to each of the stories below; in that way this post will act as a contents page as well as an introduction. I hope you will explore, and perhaps even enjoy, one or more of my stories – but I must of necessity leave that with you.

1) The Baptism of Jon arose from an exercise which began with the following tasks: pick a character’s name and give this person a tattoo, choose a second character who will either help or hinder the first; there must be a setback, but then a resolution. (Those of you who write will recognise this as a variant of the classic story arc.) There’s no immediate link with the physical sciences but, almost unconsciously at first, I ended up setting the story in a conference room. I’ve been sitting in such rooms, off and on, for four decades …

2) Triple Scoop takes us back to the early 1980s when I was making repeated extended trips to a national laboratory in the USA. I included something of this period of my career in an earlier post (here). The dramatic event at the centre of the story actually happened, and my homage to American ice cream parlours of the time definitely comes from the heart, but the characters are made up: some autobiographical traits and many others borrowed from a mishmash of acquaintances and observation.

3) Carriage C was originally drafted at the rate of ~500 words per installment through a five-session creative writing course with the local University of the Third Age, U3A, but then re-edited to iron out the consequential disjointedness and weakened overall direction. The initial exercise called for a description of a place/space in the absence of people – I wrote it on the train from London to Sheffield, where I was participating in the centenary meeting of the UK’s Society of Glass technology (see here, second half, for my reflections on the conference). Thus, I owe the entire trajectory of the story to this conference journey. Moreover, one of the fellow scientists travelling with me provided the initial constructive feedback.

4) The choice of title for the next story, New Blood, reminds me, although only in hindsight, of the government scheme to help address the age profile of UK universities in the mid-1980s. It was on the strength of this injection of funds that I was able to begin my three-decade academic career. This was a challenging exercise, heavily constrained by the requirement to use the first sentence (in italics) as the opening lines for the story. However, the vision of a group of people jointly writing a ‘make-or-break’ document came directly from experience. Almost all my published scientific output – follow the link at the bottom of the right hand column to 'orcid' for more details – has been collaborative by choice; most of this was managed using fax machines and later via the internet, but not all. There was one truly major item deemed to be so important that we shut ourselves in a room and worked on it in precisely the manner depicted in this story. With genuine affection I wrote about this team of people here.

5) Mr and Mrs Micawber arose from another challenging exercise, in this case to write a short story inspired by an image our creative writing group’s leader had provided. I have included in the post the image allocated to me, together with a crude diagram I thought might prove useful. Apart from a nod towards a pair of characters in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, the setting of the story is heavily inspired by lectures I used to deliver to new physics students during the latter, more confident and relaxed, phase of my academic career. In order to engage those students who lacked confidence in the ‘strange’ learning environment they found themselves in I would show clips from movies as the starting point for science-focused discussion or problem-solving. I made passing reference to this approach in an earlier post, here. An oft-used clip was that of the approach and docking sequence at the rotating space station depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: a space odyssey’ – a film my daughter once described as “three hours in which nothing happens”, but which to my mind has remained one of the classics of the genre. Thus, Emma and Wilkins Micawber, live on an analogous station sited at the first Earth-Moon Lagrange point ...

I sincerely hope and trust that I will continue to be able to write short fictional stories in the stimulating company of diverse, but universally creative, fellow writers. I do so for my own pleasure, but it will be interesting to see how my life as a scientist continues to inform and populate even these ostensibly ‘non-scientific’ creative writing exercises.

P.s. since posting this, and the five short stories that went with it, I'm glad to say that I've continued to write even fiction as through the lens of my lifelong love of science. My tally of shape/concrete poems has now reached two with a poem titled Cusp, after the mathematical term and which proudly displays the word 'singularity' right at its centre (the first poem, Harmonics, is mentioned here). There is added to this my first free-form poem, which was inspired by what I stumbled across during a mid-experiment walk out of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory a couple of decades ago. There's a new short story as well, set in the park below Glasgow University within site of the statue of physical scientist Lord Kelvin.

Triple Scoop (story 2)

This is the second installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...

His eyes had long-since given up the struggle to focus on reading, and staring at the screen hanging from the ceiling in front of him brought no relief to this bored weariness. John had never been able to sleep in a chair, and after five hours in the air – more than nine since dragging himself out of bed – his envy of those who could was almost palpable. It didn’t help that Zoë, his boss, had been out for the count for a while now. Even when she was still awake the conversation hadn’t actually flowed. He’d never had to travel with her before, and the fact that she was coming to review his progress made it all feel a little awkward. John turned back from the tiny oval window and glanced in her direction: in fairness, she had at least made an effort and it occurred to him that he could try a little harder to help build their relationship. She wasn’t a bad boss he conceded to himself. There were some advantages in having a career-manager running the team rather than another scientist like himself: at least she understood the system and could use it to good effect. In truth, the entire project might have remained a pipe-dream had she not known exactly how to negotiate through both the UK’s bureaucracy and the analogous American maze. Her use of the cringingly cosy relationship between Reagan and Mrs T. in side-stepping some of the security objections had actually been quite impressive. This internal discussion, one of so many conducted within his borderline-depressive head, concluded with the thought that it was, on balance, reasonable that she might want to see how things were going. This was his third extended trip back to the facility after all. 

He turned back to the window, focusing first on the scratches in the acrylic inner layer and then through his own weary face and out into the big blue. He couldn’t remember when the Atlantic had given way to solid land below; it had all become a bit of a blur, boringly familiar for all its foreignness. The background noise from the aircraft, a DC10-34 of the sort he had come to know far too well, seemed to dissolve all the individual conversations he knew must be taking place around him. He was in that trance-like introspective zone defined only by present tiredness and the rest that refuses to come. 

“What’s the time; how long have I been dozing?” Zoë had stirred, breaking the bubble.

“I’m not sure really; only half an hour or so. We ought to be getting something to eat and drink soon; I hope so anyway.”

Zoë leaned out sideways, craning her neck. “Oh yes, good guess – I can see the cabin crew shuffling around each other in their little station. I’m quite peckish. You OK?”

John never got the chance reply.

The bang coincided with a feeling of being shoved, but from nowhere in particular: whilst the sound came vaguely from below, the jolt seemed to come from everywhere – through his feet, his backside, the elbow resting on the narrow window frame; everywhere. This was not good. That much would have been obvious to everyone, but what really surprised him was the silence. No-one made a sound; even the aircraft seemed quieter. The conversations habitually going on in his head seemed also to diffuse away, making way for something deeper and darker, beyond language. For the few tens of seconds it lasted, this was surreal. 

It was the seat belt sign repeatedly pinging its way into their consciousness that initiated the change. Now, even as buckles clicked and straps were pulled, everyone turned to look at their neighbours as if to discern answers to their voiceless questions. Following Zoë’s eyes, John strained upward against his own seat belt and could just about make out the cabin crew leaving their catering tasks and strapping themselves in; one of them held a handset against her ear. He sat back down hard and re-tightened his belt as the plane banked and rapidly lost altitude. Neither John, with his semi-detached analytical mind, nor Zoë out of her added years of maturity, could accurately have told anyone how long these phases lasted. In all likelihood, barely a minute would have elapsed thus far – if that – but ones perception of time is subjective; it seemed longer. 

Out of this time-dilated state, focus gradually began to creep back in to John’s thoughts. The sound of the engines was still there, although their tone had been altered from the constant drone that travelled with them across the ocean. If he craned his neck he could tell that the wing on his side was apparently intact. Presumably the other side of the aircraft was in a similar state as the descent, although very rapid, seemed to be taking place in a controlled fashion; they were a long way from falling out of the sky. More than that, the oxygen masks hadn’t dropped from overhead so there was unlikely to have been a serious breach to the aircraft’s skin. Zoë looked reasonably calm as she stared forward and towards the cabin crew, although she was avoiding eye contact and had her hands firmly pushed down onto her legs. John found himself praying. Not for himself so much as for his wife and kids and then for the rest of his family – even for Zoë – that they’d be OK no matter what. Still no-one spoke. Shouldn’t there be screaming or something? Had he looked towards the window at this point John would have seen much the same face gazing back at him as before, apparently dispassionate although perhaps now with a clearer hint of the lines and furrows that become etched on us all eventually.

Then came the voice. This was not the immediately forgettable guy who cheerily welcomed us all to the flight. No, this person introduced himself as the captain. He spoke slowly, in a controlled fashion and with an intonation John could only describe as reminiscent of ‘Gone with the Wind’. It was a voice that positively exuded calm and confidence; everyone, John included, drank it in as though it was the elixir of the gods. 
“There is no immediate danger. One of our hydraulic compressors developed a fault and is now out of action. This could cause a problem when we come to lower the undercarriage prior to landing, but we have others in the system so it may come to nothing.” 

May? MAY? He stared at the point in the ceiling he thought the voice had emerged from, almost as though it gave him some form of direct contact with the person at the other end.

“Our intended destination remains the best choice for us given our position, and as an international gateway, Dallas–Fort Worth is able to deploy the very best facilities.”

The blindingly obvious question regarding what these ‘facilities’ were for, which presumably took shape in more heads than John’s, wasn’t answered. The captain went on to ask everyone to stay seated with their belts fastened. He must have followed his announcement with another set of instructions for the cabin crew because they soon unbuckled themselves, stowed all their catering stuff away again and then began a studied walk through the cabin. This was ostensibly to check seat belts but was mostly an attempt to follow their leader in calming fears. It occurred to John that the crew’s rate of progress through the cabin was barely interrupted at all; so in need of this token of reason-defying comfort, the overwhelming majority of passengers evidently accepted it without question. So did he.

It is probable that the majority of the conversations that now erupted around the cabin were variants on the one between Zoë and John: mostly at the level of small-talk, or what passes for that in their respective worlds. John spoke of the built-in redundancy within the aircraft’s engineering systems meaning that ‘there’s always a spare’, Zoë of her belief that ‘they’ know what they’re doing; mutually reassuring vacuous statements which brought them a reminder of their former sanity. The important words were left unspoken, echoing within their heads. Whether in deference to this internal caucus, or as an acknowledgement that the great distance between them had hitherto been bridged only by their work, the words faded away. Zoë opened her book and made an effort to read, and John turned again to look out of the window. He could make out features of a size he’d usually expect to see only in the final minutes of descent towards an airport, but the ground was closer now of course. The landscape, framed as it was by this small oval window, looked like a pale brown colour wash his wife might apply as she started another of her watercolours. It was all so typical of the Southwest in summer, and rather pretty in its own way. He guessed they were in Arkansas, although it could be eastern Texas. There were occasional parallel lines created by the ubiquitous pickup truck, and undulations delineated by their shadows; in the distance, he spotted elongated lakes and clumps of pinyon pine. 

When the sun shone up at him it appeared so suddenly that it surprised his eyes and made him recoil for a moment. In a long finger of water, placed there to create exactly the right angle to his window, to his eyes, was the sun. It ran along the surface keeping pace with him until switched off by the wilderness dust before, a few seconds later, demanding to be seen again in the surface of the next lake or pond. John couldn’t help but smile at the thought of schoolboy physics driving a dazzling light show such as this, or was it the other way around? Either way, it was beautiful: too beautiful to leave behind. He turned back to Zoë, determined to make some contact – to hold on to normality. He talked of feeling the warmth of the late afternoon Texas air cocooning their skin when they disembarked; he smiled as he confessed his traditional first task: locating a proper American ice cream parlour the instant he was through immigration and customs. But today was a special. Today he would treat himself to a new flavour and he’d buy one for her. She smiled back, as a parent smiles at a child, but she didn’t speak.

The tone of the engines changed and the plane’s speed dropped as they reduced their altitude further. Unpleasantly loud noises started coming from beneath his feet, like the sound his dad’s car had made all those years back when the clutch and gear box had failed half way through their family holiday – only worse. Muscles re-tensed all around the cabin, Zoë’s hands pushed her book down onto her legs with force and John had to will himself to keep his eyes open as he mentally rehearsed the brace position. The noise continued for several minutes before stopping.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching Dallas–Fort Worth. We have been given priority over other traffic and they confirm their readiness for our arrival.” 
The captain’s announcement signaled the imminent and inevitable arrival of their make-or-break moment; it made the cabin crew’s standard-issue housekeeping announcements regarding tray tables and seat backs seem vaguely light-hearted. John kept his eyes to the window as the ground approached; Zoë closed hers tight. 

A dozen or more red trucks were driving alongside the runway but failing to keep up. 

One way or another they must land, any second now. 

So many breaths being held, held, held. 

John decided that he’d treat himself to three scoops today.

© R.J. Newport, November 2016.

The Baptism of Jon (story 1)

This is the first installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...

Only Sara noticed when the side door opened and a non-descript man diffused into the room, every inch the IT support guy. She was careful to ensure that her gaze didn’t dwell on him in case others should begin to pay attention. His timing was perfect; the final speaker before lunch had easily survived the few shallow, notice-me questions at the end. This was a weary audience all aching to stretch their legs, or pee, or just to be able to refocus their eyes away from the screen; there was much shuffling of chairs. It had been a long morning session of technical talks; yes, she thought, catching his unremarkable movements reflected in a window, this is the time. Her fingers moved, almost unconsciously, to the small blue lamb tattooed high on her neck and under her hair; she thought of his, a dolphin.

Jonathan Whistler is a man who habitually walks through the corridors of his life with eyes cast down lest the betrayals and disappointments of his past reflect themselves in the faces of others. He’s not a man to be noticed, never stands out in the crowd; even his clothes would only whisper apologetically of their middle-of-the-road chain-store pedigree. No-one notices Jon, no-one remembers him; except Sara, maybe.

He walked around the edge of the small conference room to the podium. Climbing the three steps he moved quietly across the carpeted platform, behind the session chair’s table, and knelt down behind the lectern. An audio system, lighting panel and various projector controls faced him, all interconnected through a snake’s nest of cables – a surprisingly large feature given that most devices had communicated with one another wirelessly since his refit of the room. Now at least there was no confusion: this was his territory; here he was lord. He reached towards the far left corner of the shelf, his fingers feeling under the useful mass of mostly redundant cables. He only needed the small matt black box, which he slipped into his pocket. All morning, and all of yesterday, speaker after speaker had connected their laptops to the system in the assured belief that everything was contained within the four walls of their venue. And since yesterday morning, Jon’s little black box had been watching and listening more attentively than any delegate. It had also been digging: excavating into the recesses of each and every laptop haplessly delivered into its unfelt embrace. A great deal was entrusted to the hard drives it welcomed; data, yes of course, but so much more: desire, motive, deceit – all of it now in Jon’s pocket as he stood back up and retraced his steps.

Once back in the corridor, Jon walked towards the stairs and began the two-storey climb. The door onto the flat roof which hosted the company’s microwave communications equipment was locked to all staff, except for those in the IT team of course. He walked gingerly to the parapet, but peered over only momentarily – just enough time to verify that the truck was there, its back covered in the sticky netting they’d talked about. With almost palpable relief he gently lobbed his little black box over the side. His sacred task, his longed-for baptism into Sara’s world, was entering its final stage.

The lighter steps he took as he descended the stairs would not have been noticed by anyone who didn’t know Jon well, and so few did, but in a passing glance which nevertheless took it all in, Sara noted them as he turned onto the final flight. He was about six steps from the end when he allowed himself to look up for long enough to see her; she was smiling as she waltzed through the scanner and left the building with half a dozen other hungry delegates. She’ll make her excuses and split from them once she’s out of site he thought. So far, so good.

It took two finger-trembling attempts to key in his code for the staff scanner before Jon could swipe himself through the barrier and leave by the less obvious rear door. Turning left into the alleyway he walked towards the road at his habitual moderate pace but then speeded up, keen to get to their café. Maybe he’d find one of the leather sofas was free – a perfect place for the promised debriefing conversation and his payment. The money was neither here nor there; he’d even toyed with the idea of donating it to some charity or other. No, Jon’s hoped-for reward took the less defined shape of acceptance: acceptance by Sara into her life, acceptance as a person worthy of a place at her side as she fought to right the wrongs around them. His mind was still in full flight when he stepped through the café’s door and saw her already seated. She had evidently bought him his usual mug of Earl Grey, but she was not alone.

Not knowing quite what to do, Jon smiled weakly and followed her eyes as they directed him towards the empty wooden chair at their small circular table.
“Please sit down Jon. This is Cynthia. I work for her.”

Cynthia was a neatly dressed woman who could have been in her late fifties but might equally pass for a forty-something were it not for the greying hair and the deep creases around her fathomless eyes. She looked first at Sara and then at Jon. Here was a person accustomed to having all eyes on her, all of the time.
“Allow me to congratulate you Jon: you did well; the information you gathered is already with our analysts; they’re pleased, very pleased I hear.”
Cynthia paused for long enough to allow her voice to register with him, and to take a sip of coffee. 
“I apologise for the subterfuge, but in the circumstances it was necessary. Don’t reproach Sara: she was under orders to recruit you, which she so evidently achieved of course. Once you’re properly on the payroll there’s so much more we can share with you.”

Jon had been sinking, but was propelled back towards the surface by an ill-defined anger derived from one too many perplexing betrayals.
“What are you talking about? Sara, what’s going on? I’m working with you; the tattoos, what about …” 
His voice faded as realisation dawned.

Sara stared at her cup; she didn’t speak. The impasse was over only when Cynthia signalled her to leave, which she did in silence, eyes averted. Cynthia continued
“There’s no turning back Jon, like it or not you work for us now. We’ll be in touch in due course; carry on as normal in the meantime.”
She paused, this time to finish her coffee before rising.
“Au revoir Jon.”

Half an hour later, Jon was still staring at a cold tea when two fresh mugs were set down. The chair opposite was drawn back and she sat down, just as she had done three months before.

© R.J. Newport, 27/5/16

Carriage C (story 3)

This is the third installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...

From one reluctant sliding door to the other, Carriage C was, at its heart, a linear world. The well-trodden, aisle carpet accentuated its nature with a weft of faded coloured lines. The ranked exhibition of seats was hung with a matrix of dashed lines on their tired upholstery. At their sides, pitted and slightly sticky arm rests seemed to point the way to somewhere – even as they held their occupants in place – and atop each one stood the ranks of fatuous reservation cards and bright orange hand-holds. The spaces between were obliged to echo this relentless theme, which was reflected by the metallic grills of a faltering ventilation system and by fluorescent lights in the ceiling, and by the luggage racks to the side. Around and about this world, in the streaking universe in which it sat, only filial shapes seemed to exist in the pallid evening light: tracks beneath, cirrus above, fences and power cables to the side. A straight line, made up of rows, moving linearly through life. Neither Carriage C nor any part of the train could have discerned at departure the significance of this particular set of lines-in-motion, this one date, this precise time. Complexity, discovery or empathy may dawn as lines branch or intersect or entwine, but ignorance rather than simplicity will partner the parallel or the orthogonal. Carriage C had already been, and was destined again to become the incubator of each.

None of this can be the concern of a watcher. They are never told the reasons why; their duty is to watch and to listen, unnoticed, and then to synthesise and report. That’s their job, it’s what they’re trained to do: embed themselves into a group in order to dig deep and range wide. There is a sort of beauty to the immersion process, at first anyway. But each time a diligently created and wholly inhabited character is set aside at the end of a run, a little more of the watcher is lost. Some begin to find it more difficult to relocate themselves, whilst others give up the attempt and fade away from the inside. Beauty begins to die and only the beast thrives; the Adams and the Eves have eaten of the fruit and then must come The Fall; judgement will surely follow.








I was sat in my preferred rear-facing aisle seat. Opposite me sat Patrick – never, ever Pat – with an unopened book of word searches on the table in front of him. In the window seat next to him was John, who’d reluctantly closed the cover on his Tablet when he realised that there was no WiFi on the train but who still couldn’t bring himself to return it to his day-bag. Ros sat across from John, next to me, mostly content to gaze out of the window and to smile. On the other side of the aisle, and joining the conversation in their necessarily semi-detached fashion, sat Cheryl, George, Kez and Charlie. We’d be joined from time to time by the more sociable of the passers-by on their way to the toilets, each one being quietly cursed by Cheryl until the engaged light went out again. When he was satisfied that the hare was running well within his own group of immediate neighbours, Phil would kneel on his seat in order to peer over our table and drop an occasional aerial tit-bit into our midst. Together, our coach represented the young singles from last year’s intake.

We all agreed that few, if any of the passengers would ever have been in a chartered carriage before, let alone a whole train. It had taken several return trips to achieve the transfer using old London buses, the ‘Heritage Fleet’, replete with burly ‘conductor’ on the door. The station’s concourse had been largely devoid of people until we filled it. Pretty much the entire institute was on the trip – along with their partners and dependant offspring. At least, that’s what Phil told us, and he should know given whose desk it is he reputedly perches on so often. There had been a lot of suspicion, even hostility, when it was announced that we were being privatised, especially with the project finally edging towards the breakthrough everyone had been working such long hours to achieve. We rehearsed the arguments again in our little group at one end of the carriage – a location chosen in order that Cheryl could get to the toilets easily, although having seen them that proximity seemed less desirable – and it was universally acknowledged that our fears had been misguided. Well, almost universally. The ever-questioning Charlie had steadfastly declined to join the club and was still frowning now. Nobody quite followed her arguments through to any conclusion however. I made a real effort to support her though, and I could see she had a point or two but come on, I asked: how could it be all that bad to be taken over by a concern prepared to whisk us all off on a three-week trip? OK, the promised luxury hadn’t yet materialised, but we were on a train in the UK for goodness sake – ‘luxury’ would be more than a little surprising at this juncture. Set all that alongside the new salary package though … well, who cares?

Cheryl had dropped out of the banter and was staring at the ‘engaged’ light, which had been on for some time now.
“Sorry, got to go. I’ll pop along to the other end of the carriage; maybe the loo in the next one is free.”

She threaded herself out of her seat, then turned and walked towards the hoped-for sanctuary as briskly as the train would permit, one hand-hold to the next, until she disappeared through the sliding door. There had been a transient lull whilst we silently acknowledged her declaration, and a couple of us even turned towards her in order to offer a sympathetic smile, but the chatter picked up its pace again as she crossed our invisible border. Charlie, on the other hand, went quiet and simply stared after Cheryl; one eyebrow was slightly raised, I noticed, as though quizzical.

The late afternoon autumnal sun was good to see after a week of wall-to-wall clouds, but as it sank in the sky it dawned on me that I was likely to get dazzled fairly soon. For a moment I toyed with the idea of grabbing Cheryl’s seat whilst she was away; I’d explain myself away by saying something about being more sociable perhaps. In all likelihood I would have stayed where I was anyway, but spotting the pull-down blind eased the decision-making process. Almost as the request that the blind be pulled down had left my lips, the train went into a tunnel. Those who had travelled this line before ought to have expected it, but we’d all been so wrapped up in our little conversations that it seemed to come as a mildly irritating surprise. Had there been any mobile signal to start with I’d probably have joined in with the usual muttered annoyance, but no-one had picked anything up since we left the station; well, not in our group anyway. Much more surprising, and annoying, was the fact that the train’s brakes were slammed on once we were a few seconds in, and along with their screeching the carriage lights flickered and then went out. The transition from sunshine to tunnel-darkness left all of us sightless for a while, even with the benefit of the train’s so-called emergency lights – which didn’t seem even vaguely fit-for-purpose. Once the brakes had finally been eased off and back into silence, and when the lights had been reborn, no-one spoke until, a short while later, the train began to accelerate towards normality again. It was rapidly growing dark outside now and the fluorescent tube lighting in the carriage accentuated the change. Most people had lost all sense of where we were.

“What was that all about?”
There could be no answer to Charlie’s rhetorical question of course, beyond resigned shoulder shrugs.
“Cheryl’s taking her time isn’t she? I’m going to see if I can find a buffet car anyway so I’ll check on her as I pass. Anyone want anything?”
There were too many coffee- and tea-deprived people for one pair of hands to satisfy so I offered to go with her. Curiously, I felt my heart rate go up a little as I did so, but maybe it was just my stressed imagination; either way, this could be a golden opportunity. Charlie didn’t say no; in fact she didn’t say anything at all.

I couldn’t decide whether to walk in front of her or to follow and it all got a little farcical before we set off along the aisle. I ended up leading the way, but wishing I wasn’t. Two sliding doors later and we were in the next carriage. The toilet was vacant, no Cheryl. Charlie, now frowning in puzzlement and with something of an edge to her voice, thought she’d either had to walk to the next one or had decided to get something from the buffet herself, so we walked on. This time Charlie was in front, but walking faster than was comfortable given the imposition of random sideways lurches as the train adjusted itself to some new peculiarity in the tracks. The last thing I wanted was to end up on someone’s lap or to be spread across a table; looking ungainly was not an ambition right now. The next toilet emptied its middle-aged occupant as we approached. It certainly wasn’t Cheryl.
“The next carriage is the buffet car, she must be in there.”

Charlie didn’t turn or offer any acknowledgement of my helpful comment; maybe she didn’t hear. She walked on, if anything the pace was faster still.

The buffet car was empty and it took only a second to register the obvious fact of Cheryl’s continued absence. Surely she hadn’t walked even further? Charlie almost ran through to the other end, but the door to what must be the executives’ First Class carriages was not only locked but blacked out. I couldn’t see Charlie’s face properly until she turned back towards me. The frown was still there, but something new and vaguely contagious had been added: was it fear, or anger? I had no clear idea what to do or say, so I did what I always do: rush in like the foolish character I have become.
“Huh! I didn’t realise our bosses were that stand-offish; I’ll get us a drink: tea without sugar, yes?”
I turned, neither expecting nor getting a reply, and only then remembered that the buffet was unstaffed.

“Try not to be too much of an idiot, this is serious. I’m worried. I still don’t know exactly why I am, but I am. And it’s not just about Cheryl, although I’m sure she’s a part of it. I think we need to get back to the others and take stock: maybe someone has a piece of the jigsaw I’m missing.”
She started to retrace her steps at the same rapid pace she had adopted for the walk here, but we got no further than the buffet car’s sliding door. This too was now locked, and although done more crudely using plastic sheeting taped to the far side, it was also blacked out. We just stared at each other, momentarily transfixed within our respective worlds of confusion, but there was a familiar sound at the other end of the car. The door to the First Class carriages had slid open; we turned to see three people, a woman and two men, walking past the counter and towards us. They stopped a couple of metres away.

Cheryl had two guys standing close behind her shoulders, both dressed like the conductors on our ‘heritage buses’. I recognised one of them, or thought I did.

It was Charlie who spoke first.

Cheryl stared impassively towards Charlie; she seemed not to register my presence at all.
“You still haven’t quite put it all together have you Charlie? But you’ve begun to get much closer and if you had only listened more carefully to Phil’s gossip and thought about its pedigree I think you’d have seen enough of the truth to have made the jump. You’re certainly clever enough; I’ve always given you credit for that. It’s the fact that you’re also such a very inquisitive person that tipped the scale in terms of my interest though; I’ve been staying close to you for a reason.” 
A hint of a wry smile played momentarily across her face. 
“I can see there’s a dawning of some sense of the reality of where this is all heading. It’s too late. You’ve walked into a swamp in which, whether you know it or not, you’re already sinking. Your colleagues are about to begin a new life at our replacement facility. They’ll be exceptionally well looked after as long as their work for us remains as good as it was. You, however, will not be joining them.”

Her face turned towards me with her eyes following a second or so later, after they had released Charlie’s incredulous stare. In that small act she had tacitly handed Charlie over to one of the conductors; without noticeable effort, he moved behind her and covered her mouth. Her attempts to break loose were futile; only her eyes were free, expressing the shocked supremacy of primitive emotion in their stare.
“Your file suggests a well-trained and effective watcher but, how shall I put it, you seem to have developed a tendency to be a little naïve, or downright sloppy of late. I’ve been evaluating you as a side-line: watching the watcher if you will. I’m sorry about that; one doesn’t like to undermine a colleague – even a colleague one’s never met before. You will be re-assigned.”

By the time she had finished speaking, the contents of a small syringe had already been emptied high up into the back of Charlie’s neck. Released from her conductor’s grip, she dropped to the floor in silence. Only then did I realise how much I had grown to like her or, rather, the idea of her.

I barely had time to see the taser before it was fired.


Refreshment trolleys had started to ply their way back and forth through their carriage and all its neighbours within minutes of the buffet car’s closure, and the fact that everything was free served only to enliven the nascent holiday mood. Perhaps it was the sheer volume of food consumed, but most people relaxed into silence after a while or drifted into a shallow sleep. Given the growing darkness, no-one had paid attention to the route the train began taking after it had left the tunnel, and the fact that their dimly lit terminus wasn’t immediately recognisable seemed to cause no great concern. Save for a few whining children, they left the train quietly, still feeling a little groggy but glad to have been told that their baggage would be taken care of by porters. It took no more than ten or fifteen minutes of gentle but efficient shepherding to funnel a train-load of people from the quiet platform into a couple of covered passageways that lead directly onto the waiting cruise ship. No-one had yet missed the two recent recruits from carriage C, and over the next day or so they would choose to believe the well-crafted rumours about them that Phil would whisper into their ears.

But I have a copy of the surveillance files, all neatly cross-linked using voice pattern and keyword analysis, and with the individuals’ movements tracked using both gait and facial recognition software. So, I know the truth, or at least I know something closer to it, and now also do you: take care …

© R.J. Newport, October-December 2016.

New Blood (story 4)

This is the fourth installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...

‘When I found her, she was catatonic and emaciated, eyes vacant, arms protecting her chest, knees drawn up, almost foetal. I don’t think she’d have survived much longer in the darkened room where she had evidently been hidden for weeks.’ Oh, and I suppose she was naked too, right? Come on guys, you’re better than this … this, whatever-it-is. Our demographics peak in the 15-30 year band, and they’re mostly women: modern women. We don’t have the audience capital to make a rip-off James Bond; you sound like Tina Turner wanting her hero fresh from the fight for goodness sake. Pull it together, and quickly if you want to keep your jobs. Sam and Francis arrive tomorrow morning with their new legal team, and I don’t have a good feeling about it. Get to it.”
Zac clapped his hands twice as he turned and left the writers’ den; the irony of his use of an obvious physical cliché wasn’t lost on them and that at least brought some weak smiles to this room of frowns.

The writing team knew only too well just how tough were the times at most of the independent studios in their creative arts ghetto, and none were under pressure more than theirs. Realism wasn’t the issue here, the frowns were nothing to do with the potential for upheaval. These people were frustrated, confused and downright angry. It was no surprise to anyone that it was Beth who spoke first. She was their shiny graduate intern. This fact alone made her into a rare treat for the team, although she brought with her so much else that was uplifting, not least a naïve directness that made them all want to up their game – and thereby to remember and to begin to recover their earlier love of words. Passion is an odd thing: they could so easily have closed ranks and shut her down, but individually and severally they had, for reasons no-one chose to explore, opened to her without reserve. This was her undefined reward of course, but Beth’s interpretation was more straightforward: they were cool, and she liked them.

“What a prat. He’s just walked away from the best synopsis he’s ever likely to have seen; he didn’t even read it through properly. Idiot!”
One by one the other people in the room, eyes without expression, either tried to respond or sighed and nodded in assent.
“He’s got form Beth; once his mind is made up, no matter the evidence or the argument, there’s no turning him. It’s rubbish, but what can you do?”
“Jared is right Beth. I know it stinks, we all agree, but he’s the boss and we all need to keep our jobs if we can – I’ve got two kids and an ex who contributes almost nothing …”

“So, so what do we do?”
Beth was apparently undefeated, although puzzled and not a little exasperated. For the first time, the edge to her voice needled a couple of them into thoughts they’d not entertained before: of upstarts and the folly of carefree youth, and of jealousy for her possession of that which they had left by the wayside somewhere along the way.

It was, however, the obvious question, and it fell to their team leader, the once formidable Gwen, to define a way forward.
“OK folks, we have to be realistic about this. We have an afternoon to get something drafted, then those who are able might do some editorial polishing through the evening, yes?”
No-one spoke or even nodded, private thoughts, or none at all, consumed them in that never-ending moment of defeat. Gwen took the silence as acceptance – not that there was a viable alternative forming in anyone’s mind. She continued, although she was by then talking more to profiles than to faces: staring blankly out of the windows was a favoured way of avoiding eye contact, she’d slipped into it herself many times.
“Those who can get here early tomorrow will agree the final version and circulate copies. I see only one option given the timescales. We’ll have to use the same basic framework but try swapping the characters around a little to make the obvious victim a guy and the person who opens the door a woman.”
There was at this point the beginning of movement in the team. They were professionals after all, and they didn’t want to undermine Gwen.
“Come on; I know this is hard, but we need to make a start.”

It was Beth’s turn to drift away now, disappointment adding itself to her uncertainty; this was turning into a hard lesson, and she didn’t like it one bit. In a merciful attempt at diverting her focus, Gwen asked her to slip out to get some fruit and other goodies for the team. It would perhaps give her some time to process and reflect on what she’d seen. Beth accepted the proffered cash and left without saying a word. The closing door provided the catalyst for everyone to sit down and to begin. Jared got the rejected synopsis up on the screen and acted as their critical scribe whilst they jointly began to tear it apart and then try to put it back together again in a coherent form. None of them were surprised that the fruit didn’t arrive. It was a tough few hours.


Everyone was in by about 8:00 the next day, which was pretty amazing given school runs and so on, but they all wanted a bit of mutual affirmation before the CEO, Samantha Barnes, and her PA, Francis what’s-his-name, turned up with Zac and goodness knows who else. Beth walked in just before 8:30, struggling to control the door without up-ending the huge bowl of fruit balanced on a box of doughnuts on her arms. Gwen, grinning from ear to ear like the rest of them, rushed to help. Oh, how they’d needed the laughter that followed.

Some forty minutes or so later, Zac was holding the door open for Sam’s procession: Jared, of course, followed by three androgynous suits and their appended attaché cases. The supplicating introductory pleasantries dealt with, Zac dutifully stepped back a little to give Sam the stage.
“Good morning. I’m not going to beat about the bush, you’ll be well aware that the syndicate is under pressure, as so many others are. Much was riding on this new script proposal. I regret to have to tell you that I’m disappointed – deeply disappointed – and I cannot now see how we can continue to justify an in-house writing team of this sort. I have therefore instructed Zac to outsource operations from this point onward; these ladies and gentlemen accompanying me will explain to you your options in detail and answer any questions. I’m truly sorry to be obliged to deliver this news, but my primary concern is for the sustainability of the syndicate overall.”

The stunned silence that followed lasted only a second or two before Beth strode into the no-man’s-land between the team and Sam and her entourage.
“I’m not surprised in the slightest that you hate the synopsis Zac forced them to supply, it’s crap. But before you waltz off, please grant us a little respect and do yourself the huge, huge favour of reading what we’d originally crafted. Here.”
Beth handed her a paper copy. To everyone’s surprise, the frontal attack had an effect and without uttering a word or even registering a change to her body language, Sam actually started to read through the synopsis. In contrast to Zac’s peremptory evaluation of yesterday Sam, although reading very quickly, went past the opening scene. She followed the protagonist out of her prison room, through days of medical evaluation and into the months of therapy and the potentially re-traumatising trial. Turning to the final page Sam saw her rise above the simplistic success of the guilty verdict and take flight, as though, she imagined, on into the dawn of the very first day.

She lowered the stapled sheets to her side, but was otherwise quite still; no-one dared move or speak. With her arm guiding Francis to the far side of the room, Sam spoke briefly into the side of his attentive face; she returned to her commanding position whilst Francis repeated her manoeuvre with the suits. “Let me be sure I have this straight: this was the original synopsis you wrote as a team and submitted to Zac, but which he rejected in favour of the re-write I was shown this morning: yes?”

“Yes.” Beth and Gwen spoke in unison.

“OK, thank you for that confirmation. This is gold; pure, pure gold.” A smile could be seen forming on Sam’s face, slight and mostly from the eyes but good to see nevertheless. “Zac, would you walk with my colleagues to your office please – they’ll have some papers for you to sign. I’ll be there later.”
She waited for the door to close, never having made even the slightest eye contact with a shell-shocked Zac as he walked out, utterly dejected.
“Gwen, as team leader I’d like you to cover Zac’s role in the interim please. You’ll need to compete for the post in due course, naturally, but even a temporary exposure to the role should be beneficial.” Gwen nodded, although in truth she didn’t fully understand what was to be required of her.

Sam turned to the young warrior in front of her. 
“Beth isn’t it? Let me be clear: if you ever speak to me in that way again you’ll be fired on the spot: do you understand?”
“I’m an intern Ms. Barnes: I’ll be gone soon enough more’s the pity.” 
“You were an intern Beth: welcome to the syndicate. HR will be in touch within the next few days.” At which, she spun around and walked out through the door that Francis somehow already knew needed to be opened.


A few hours later, feeling an unaccountable concern for Zac and wanting to be able to bump into him in the supermarket without being enveloped in a cloud of bad feeling, Gwen turned up at his house. There was no answer at the front so she wandered around to the back as she had often done in the early days for staff BBQs and the like; it was a lovely evening, maybe he was on the deck. As she rounded the corner she found him, he looked almost trance-like and drawn, eyes vacant, arms across his chest, knees drawn up, almost foetal.

© R.J. Newport, January 2017.

Mr and Mrs Micawber (story 5)

This is the fifth installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...

By the time their meal was over, a typically warm evening had turned into tepid darkness. Nothing of what ought to have been said across the small gingham-covered table-for-two near the back of the little café had actually been broached. Although both had hinted, neither of them wanted to be the first to cross the threshold; neither had the courage to follow through. It had to happen though, sooner or later, and both knew that it ought to be sooner. Without identifiable conscious choice, let alone explicit agreement, they walked – slowly, side by side, drifting inevitably towards the gardens in the leisure octant. It was as though they were characters in a silent movie or unwary sailors of old, lured onto the rocks by the irresistible call of the Sirens.

In most towns and cities of old municipal gates would have been padlocked shut before sunset, but not here. Senior City had no need of fences or gates within its skin. Giant fuzzy-edged lily pads of moonlight were created on the winding path by the ubiquitous motion-sensitive lamps. As though on auto-pilot, which in a sense they were, Emma and Wilkins reached the one seat they had habitually used since it had all begun so many months ago. The bench, in a polymer finished so that it resembled the sun-bleached elm they might have recalled from former days, faced the model boating lake and was shielded to the rear by dwarf fruit trees and a dense undergrowth of grasses and ferns. If they sat perfectly still, the moon would go out in a couple minutes; they sat perfectly still.

Senior City comprised, in essence, eight pods each of which was tethered to the service hub by an umbilical cord and to their neighbours either side via causeways within a sort of bellows arrangement reminiscent of the walkways between carriages in old-style trains. From a distance it looked like an overly engineered bicycle wheel, not that many residents had ever seen it other than in digital images of course as their shuttle had only a few tiny portholes. The pods had three levels, one upon the other – not that ‘up’ had quite the same intuitive meaning in the context of this giant rotating space station they now had to call home. Emma and Wilkins lived in the central level, which was regarded as being by far the best by virtue of its relative spaciousness and safety – and not a little marketing in Wilkins’ opinion. Constructed with a diameter of half a kilometre, and rotating around the hub once every minute or so, its effective gravity was only about two thirds of that felt on Earth. The load placed on the heart and the rest of the body was correspondingly reduced. However, these benefits came at a price and thereby gave rise to their problem. It had all seemed worth it of course, given Emma’s degenerative medical condition, which is why they had sold everything and leased their suite there.

It was Emma who broke the silence. She did so with only the slightest tilt of the head towards her partner of almost 16 years: a man who had offered such a safe and secure existence after the trauma that ended her first marriage. The ‘moon’ stayed off; only the background light from a myriad LED stars separated them from complete darkness and reconfirmed to each the presence of the other.
“I really don’t want to move Wilky. I love our rooms, especially being so close to the park. We have nice neighbours and I’ve made friends. I’m content there. I just don’t want to move again; I’m not sure I can stand more upheaval.”

“I know my sweet, and maybe it won’t come to it, but we have to think ahead and be realistic. We only have our pensions coming in and it’s not enough is it?”

“But we had all that money from selling the business and the house, and our other savings – we always knew we’d have to use it to top up the pension so I don’t understand …”
Her voice tailed off, but Wilkins, being the man he was, couldn’t tell whether she was sad, angry, disappointed, confused or something else altogether. He stayed silent for a few seconds, hoping that inspiration would come. It didn’t. He wanted to get across to her his discomfort at watching their funds trickle away – all those memories of a childhood spent in resentment at the lavish impulse-spending of his parents in the face of the shame of longer-term crippling debt – but he wanted to be able to do it without sounding irrational. Then there was the thread he dare not pull but which kept snagging on his thoughts, threatening to come adrift without warning or restraint even as he tried so hard to ignore it. He’d done the sums. He knew precisely how long it would be until their reserves were exhausted, and that this was an optimistic projection given the likelihood of more price rises for food and services. Emma had done well in Senior City; she seemed so much stronger. That was good, no, it was wonderful – but it meant they’d need to stay solvent for longer and that was the real issue.

What did his ex-journalist buddy tell him they used to say in the old days? ‘If in doubt, leave it out.’ Doubt filled him, and it drove goodness knows what else around his head. The words that came out would do nothing to assuage his money-troubled thoughts or redeem his broken sleep, but there was a sort of demon guilt which would, if not propitiated, assault him with a fear of hurting her – and that was far, far more serious.
“I’ll tell you what, why don’t we get a pass and do some exploring. We’ll think of it as a walking holiday to the inner and outer levels, just to see what they look like and get the measure of them. It’ll be a change. We might find we like it, or we might decide that it makes our level seem even better. Who knows; it’ll be a little adventure; no harm in that is there?”

Emma thought for a while, toying with her own long-resident demon of rejection and of the associated fear of change and the unknown; she’d still not fully got past the huge transition of coming here, surely she deserved a little peace now. Wilky had been so good to her though, and she knew only too well that he had sacrificed a lot for her.
“Just a change of route for our stroll then; exploring; nothing more. Do you mean it?”

He really did mean it as they sat side by side on their bench under the faux starlight. Only later, during the waking hours before dawn was initiated, would the old thoughts re-surface and jab at his soul. Maybe she’ll take a liking to the other levels, maybe the money will last until …

© R.J. Newport, 14/2/17