Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Pinwheel 6: John Searches for Peace

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2nd September, 2008

CERN Headquarters, Geneva

John is sitting under a tree near the car park, with an air of melancholy befitting a Turkish poet. He does not see Sholeh until she is stood, arms-crossed, in front of him.

‘What are you doing here?’ he says with a start, legs snapping up like praying mantis hands. ‘Did anyone see you?’

‘Perhaps they did,’ she says. ‘And why would that be a bad thing?’

He opens his mouth to answer…and the answer hangs within him. His expressions sinks from panic to resignation, and his body sinks with it. He picks a stone from near his knee and gives a bitter laugh.

‘I suppose it doesn’t matter,’ he says. He stands up slowly, as if he has gained forty years’ weight in a moment. ‘None of it matters, does it?’

He launches the stone out into the cars, and it clangs off unseen metal. Sholeh examines her employer – her kidnapper – as he turns back to her. There is a deadly challenge in his expression, as if daring her to scold him, daring the world to hurt him. A spark flares in her. If he is issuing a challenge, she will meet it.

‘What is the purpose of this experiment?’

He groans and tries to walk past her.

‘I get this ten times a day from Onyeka already. Why don’t you puzzle it out with her?’

‘I cannot speak English well enough.’

‘Then learn.’

His ease infuriates her.

‘I cannot just learn without trying, as you do!’

Another groan. Another attempt to walk away. She grabs his arm and stops him.

True, perhaps he is older than her, taller than her, stronger than her, perhaps her heart is thumping with years of warnings and fables – but letting him go without word is unthinkable. He looks at her, and she holds ever stronger for her fear.

He smiles. And kindly.

‘I know. Sorry. Ask Grace, though – she’ll know. Or look on the internet. It knows pretty much everything – isn’t that crazy?’

She releases his arm and he strolls back towards the buildings. Does she dare voice it? “You are crazy”? Would he only laugh? Perhaps.

Sholeh catches up with him, and after a few seconds of silence, during which John seems content, she tries again. Her mother always told her that soft persuasion was better with the weak, and fights with tyrants. And she senses weakness radiating from John – weakness of soul, of mind, she reckons.

‘What is the purpose of the second chamber on the collider?’

‘You’re not letting that go, huh?’ he says, wry smile still on his face. Something warps in his speech, and again she suspects he is not speaking Farsi even though she understands him. ‘Fine, I’ll bite. I’m going to introduce another element to the collider, and see if it affects what happens with the particles. Simple enough, right?’

A metal box of four by two by six. A shivering sensations settles over her shoulders.

‘Is that safe?’

He chuckles, and looks at her like she is playing a joke on him.

‘Is it – is it safe? Listen, you know what a black hole is, right?’

She nods.

‘I tell you, so much of all this was news to me – and black holes, that’s scary, right? It sucks everything into it, and nothing ever gets out, it’s gone forever. I mean, it’s crazy – just crazy. And when the LHC is turned on, there’s a chance, they say, that it will rip open a black hole, and it’ll suck in CERN, and Geneva, and all of Europe and the world and everything. All of this, and us, gone like that.’

He gestures to the cars, the gravel, the trees, the cloudy sky.

‘It won’t happen,’ Sholeh says, folding her arms again. ‘That is fearful speculation. Nothing will happen.’

Where her conviction has sprung from, she doesn’t know. Part of her has worried about that outcome, secretly, but when faced with John, her instinct is to be brave, be dismissive. Scorn bolsters her.

‘All of it gone and as blank as the night sky,’ John mutters to himself. He looks upwards.

‘What is your aim in having us here?’ Sholeh demands.

‘Hn,’ he says, with another bitter smile. It is a long second before he tears his eyes away from the sky and to her.

‘I suppose,’ he says, ‘I’m looking for peace. Yeah, that’s it – peace. I’ve been running around a long time, not knowing what I’m doing. But that’s it, isn’t it? I’m looking for peace.’

Bags under his eyes. Exhaustion in every bone. Sholeh’s arms fall out of their fold.

As he walks towards the nearest door, she swallows, and debates with herself on what to do. The mystery of the experiment falls into unimportance, shoved aside by a new certainty, and the quandaries and decisions that requires:

John is a man determined to die.

~~~

February 11th, 1931

Ozone Park, New York

‘Hey Sam,’ John says, mind stretching out through his alcoholic fog. ‘You believe in God?’

Sam’s eye is caught on the ceiling corner, as if it fascinates him.

‘Old man in the sky?’ He shakes his head. ‘No. Things that I’ve seen…no way.’

Things that have happened to you, you mean, John thinks. If I was attacked and left to die and they never found who did it, and I had to live with being a cripple, I wouldn’t believe in God either. And yet, Sam can still smile, and talk, and make money, even without his leg and eye. But without someone on high…

‘So then,’ John pushes, ‘what happens after we die? If there’s no God, no heaven, no hell, then what is there?’

‘Nothing,’ Sam says. ‘It’s like a big sleep.’

The words burrow deep. The fog threatens to lift and reveal the dense core of pain and terror seated at the heart of him.

‘Ha,’ John says, ‘that’s fucking awful.’

Sam’s eye swivels to him, watching as he takes another full-throated glug.

‘It’s not too bad. No pain. No worrying.’

‘No,’ John says, wiping his mouth. ‘I hate that idea. No punishment, no reward either. I’d miss so much – it’d kill me, knowing I’d never eat or drink or screw again, I’d never anything again.’

‘You wouldn’t miss it. You wouldn’t know it. You wouldn’t be anything any more. You don’t miss being awake when you’re asleep, do you?’

John considers it a second, then shakes his head violently.

‘No, still, no way. So everything I’ve been, is just gone? I can’t – I don’t believe it. I dunno how you can believe it.’

Sam shrugs. John wants to hit him. So constantly calm, so easy-going with life.

‘I can’t explain it, really. I was nothing before I was born, and I didn’t care. When I’m dead, I won’t care about being dead, because I’ll be dead – see? I’ll be nothing, and that’ll be…peaceful.’

‘So nothing is peace?’ John says, with a purposefully aggravating smile. Sam doesn’t rise to the bait. The bastard.

‘Suppose so,’ he says, turning his eye back to the ceiling.

John reaches for another bottle. Maybe the idea of peace appeals to him. No more suffering. But if he died now, he’d leave nothing behind to show for his life, and that galls him worse than the notion of no God and no heaven or hell. How can I bring people together, he thinks, when I can’t even look after my own family’s leftovers? How can I make a difference, when I’ve got next to nothing, and might have even less tomorrow?

He opens his mouth to say it. Say to Sam, “I’m in trouble, I’m scared for my life, if I don’t get this money my brother owes to the mob, I’m as good as dead.”

Sam’s doberman barks in the front hall. Loud as a gunshot. Both men jump. Sam’s shoulders seize up, and remain high after the subsequent growls and half-hearted yaps make it clear that it is a false alarm.

‘Ha, ha ha ha ha,’ John says, forcing the breaths out of him, forcing himself to calm down. Sam doesn’t move. Every muscle in him is tense. His eye is stuck on the doorway.

He lifts his bottle to his lips and takes a sip, never moving his gaze. Silence resumes in the hallway, as whatever irritated Barnardo passes by. Sam swallows loudly.

‘You know they came in through the front door,’ he says, his voice hoarse. ‘I swear it was locked, and they walked right in, and ran right out again.’

John doesn’t reply. Sam has never spoken of that night with him.

Sam sighs and runs his hand over his eyepatch, through his hair, down his neck.

‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to get morbid.’

‘We were already morbid,’ John says. He clinks his bottle against Sam’s, and says, ‘Drink.’

Sam tips his head back, eye squeezed shut. When he’s taken a long drink, he coughs and gives John a wry smile.

‘You think that makes it better?’

‘I know it does.’

‘You’re right,’ Sam says, and takes another.

John smiles. Stupid to consider piling his problems on Sam, of all people. He won’t think of it again.

They talk of foolish things, and drink to push down what’s eating them.

~~~

July 3rd, 2005

Shibuya, Tokyo

Nothing in her wildest imaginings could have prepared Alice for Tokyo. She has grown used to 1920s New York, where at first it was a brick-and-concrete dreamland, but this – this is something else. Bodies and colours swarm her vision. Screens of moving colour pictures, some taller than her childhood home, light up the sides of glass buildings; huge cars all shades of the spectrum honk on the road; upbeat music blasts from open doorways, mingling with the constant buzz of chatter and movement. And the people…Bert once told Alice how many people existed in the world. Two billion, he had said. She didn’t know what a billion was, and even once he explained it to her, she didn’t comprehend what such a large number meant, didn’t quite believe it existed.

Walking through Shibuya, she now believes that two billion people exist – and that they all must live in Tokyo.

After two hours of walking in the humid air and brushing up against strangers, she is exhausted. Her lady’s posture – and all the etiquette drilled into her in 1928 – is sagging. Even when she sits down on the benches beside the dog statue, the stares of those passing never relents enough to give her peace. She had thought that a dress and hat would be perpetually fashionable as summer wear, but it seems she is mistaken. She decides to ask Tessa again, when she returns to Bath. Tessa knows far more about fashion than her, but then she has had an eight-decade head start. Everyone has had a head start, compared to Alice.

Still, there is no point in being bitter. Again, the future proves more amazing, incomprehensible, and yet familiar than she can imagine. Shibuya is a wonderful example of this. She sees dyed-haired teenagers taking surreptitious photographs of her on their personal phones, but then she sees them take sips of the same coca-cola she has tasted in 1930, and then she sees a grandmother walking with a child that smiles in delight at the sky and the buildings and the world – just as has always happened. It makes her smile. Whenever she thinks she cannot be more thankful to be alive, she is reminded of this again.

She if grateful to be alive. She is grateful that Bertram, back in 1930, is going to live. She is grateful neither God nor man has yet punished her for her crime. Every time she thinks about what she did to that boy in Queens, she wants to keep running. Run forever, and never go back.

She decides to visit the station.

Once inside, she follows the tide of people until she reaches the barriers. It doesn’t matter where I go, she reminds herself. I have this necklace. I will always be free. I will always be safe.

She buys no ticket. The barrier opens for her regardless. No-one behind her notices.

A train arrives moments later, and she piles in with the rest. Though it is busy, there are seats, and the crowd leaves a wide berth for the foreigner in the ugly patterned dress.

Alice gazes out the window, and wonders what would happen if she should tap the glass just right, and cause it to shatter. The loss of her sight is like a missing tooth; irritating, saddening, a wound she constantly pokes at to remind herself that it is gone. In its wake, the urge to use her other powers has increased.

She looks down the carriage, and sees a businessman with a loosened tie, snoozing in his seat. She focuses on him, on his tie, and under her gaze, the knot of the tie creeps up, millimetre by millimetre, tightening step by step, until it is no longer loose.

‘Huh,’ come a voice behind her – an American accent, speaking English. ‘Magnetism.’

The businessman sneezes and wakes up, immediately fumbling and loosening his tie again. Alice turns to the voice behind her.

‘Yes?’

It is a young white man. Something about him is familiar, but Alice is sure she has never seen his face before.

‘Alice,’ he says, nodding. ‘I didn’t expect to ever see you again.’

The person on the seat beside her stands, and the man takes the opening. Alice shrinks back.

‘Forgive me,’ she says. ‘I do not know you.’

‘What d’you mean you don’t –’

He catches himself and his eyebrows shoot up.

‘Oh. Oh! I get it. When did you come from?’

‘John,’ comes a voice. ‘What are you doing?’

Alice glances up. John’s companion is a young black woman. The Japanese travellers have created a large space around the three of them, as if they are plagued.

‘Grace, I know this woman – just, just give me a minute, alright?’

The girl sighs and turns to the windows, putting in her earphones. Alice wishes she would have helped her.

‘Alice,’ John says in a quieter voice, ‘I know you’re travelling through time. If you’ve come from before 1931, that means we haven’t met yet. But believe me, I know you pretty damn well. You taught me – well, more I learnt a lot from you. Watch!’

He turns to the dozing businessman. John squints, and the man’s tie flicks up and hits him in the face. He wakes with a start, looks around him, and sits forward, scowling.

Alice goes cold.

John turns to her with a smile.

‘See? I got that from you. Just like I got the sight from Sam, and the blood-reading from Bert. Wow, I want to just tell you everything – but I suppose that might ruin everything if you haven’t met me yet, huh?’

Alice cannot speak. The familiarity, she realises, was that he looks like he is from 1930, as out of place as she is among these futuristic urbanites. She swears, in that moment, that she will never, never gift her power to this man, whoever he is.

‘Come on, lighten up,’ he says, a little too forcefully. ‘What are the chances that we would meet like this? I – y’know, when I was stuck in my hole in Brooklyn, seeing the same faces day in and out, there was no way for me to make coincidences like this happen, no way for me to make anything happen. Now look at me! I was in Nigeria three days ago, and now I’m here, and now I got this voice in my head saying “Go, go to Persia,” showing me the exact place I’ve got to be, the exact person I need to talk to. So I’m gonna go to Persia, and see what this crazy power of mine does from there – I reckon I’ll collect a few more people and more tricks along the way, right?’

His smiles twists. Tears form in his eyes.

‘And you know,’ he continues, voice beginning to catch, ‘I’d give it up. I’d give it all up, just to be back where you came from. Just to be able to go back to 1931, back to February, and say…tell myself what I should’ve done. But I know it’s too late. You told me that – we can’t change ourselves in the past. But hell, I wish I could. I mean, we do whatever we can to save the people we love, right?’

Those last words strike a bell in her mind.

John sighs and takes out a necklace from his pocket. The exact replica of the one currently strung round Alice’s neck, hiding behind her dress’s neckline.

‘How did you get that?’ she asks. The bell rings again, and again.

‘You gave me this as well,’ John says. ‘Or more, I took it. I’m sorry. Like I said, I’d give it all up if I could…but it’s too late now. Magnetism’s not the kind of force you can stop. I’m just using this to take it to its logical end.’

‘John,’ Grace says. The train is about to stop.

John puts the necklace back in his pocket and stands up.

‘Well, this is our goodbye. Have fun back home, and when you see me, give me a thump and tell me to not be a fool.’

‘Please,’ she says, afraid to let this omen out of her sight, ‘what happened to Bertram?’

John shrugs.

‘Last I saw him, he was bleeding on the floor in your arms. After that, I can’t say.’

The doors open.

‘Take care, Alice,’ he says, and then he and his companion are gone.

Her joy is lost. Alice stumbles out at the next station, staggers to the first quiet place she finds (the women’s toilets) and holds her necklace in her hands like she is praying. 2007. August – the day doesn’t matter – say the 24th – Bertram’s birthday – her hands are shaking. Tessa’s house. The path beside Tessa’s house. Tessa, and August, and 2007.

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Written by G.J.

02/07/2014 at 3:27 pm

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