Digital Mischief by Warrigal Mirriyuula
Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula
10 Out of The Fiery Furnace 02 (1962)
It was Catherine who noticed first.
Eric and William came out of the hallway into the living room. Mrs Morrow had turned on the overhead lights and the room was brightly lit.
“Heavens! That’s you, Eric.” Catherine said with some surprise, then paused, her eyes widening, her mouth dropping, just the merest bit.
“Eric, what’s happened to you….., Oh my poor darling.” Catherine rushed to Eric.
William couldn’t see what the fuss was about so he came round the other side of Eric and then he saw what Catherine saw as she gently held Eric’s face in her hands. In the revealing overhead light Eric looked like he was a hundred years old.
Eric couldn’t work out what the fuss was, so he quickly turned to look at his reflection in the glass panes of the hall door.
“Oh, bugger!” Eric frustratedly stamped a foot.
Eric turned back to Catherine and William with a gesture that comprised of shrugged shoulders, rolled eyes, a dumb smile, and finishing with a shake of the head.
“Sorry I forgot to…,ah,….” Eric half turned and pointed down the hall to the front door of the house.
“I was so enjoying just sitting outside; the cool night air sighing in the Norfolk Pines, the ozone and damp sand. I love that smell; and the sound of the waves breaking and shushing up the beach, that last sibilance and silence as the water finally sinks into the sand… Well I forgot to reset.” Eric looked at the assembled company with a look of abject apology.
“Mrs. Morrow, I am so terribly sorry you had to see me like this.” Eric ran his hands over his face, “Hhhmmmm…” then said, “I want you to hold Catherine’s hand. This might be a little alarming, but I want to assure you that none of you are at risk. This won’t hurt a bit.” Mrs. Morrow, her distrust of Eric growing, took Catherine’s hand and gave Eric a sour look.
Eric then shook himself like a wet dog; but instead of water flying off, there were shards of coloured light rainbowing off him as the angular momentum of the shake threw them from Eric’s clothing, his face and hair, and finally his shoes; before they twinkled out to nothing.
When the shaking stopped Eric adjusted himself, straightened his back and looked at The Staffords and Mrs Morrow. “There you are, all done.”
Mrs. Morrow screamed and pulled Catherine in front of her, clutching her arm and peeping out from behind Catherine’s shoulder. Catherine was dumbfounded and William looked like he’d just been plunged into the middle of the biggest problem he had ever faced.
To the three observers Eric had apparently just shaken away about fifty years. His face; no longer a contour map of wrinkles and lines outlining the terrain of a long life; appeared taught, his eyes brighter, teeth straighter, whiter. Eric was younger. In fact he looked younger than when William and Catherine had last seen him.
Catherine decided that comforting Mrs. Morrow would allow them both time to unconsciously deal with what they had just seen. “This is definitely more your line of country darling.” She said to William as she took the older woman softly by the shoulders and led her away to the kitchen.
“Mrs. Morrow and I will go and get the brandy. I think we could all do with a drink after that little performance.” She looked at Eric with frank curiosity. “You areall right, aren’t you Eric?” She thought it best to check before she left them.
“Oh yes, fit as a flea, me.”
“Well…., OK…” Catherine still wasn’t sure; but then how could she be sure. She too had no idea what had just happened.
Catherine guided a babbling Mrs. Morrow through the dining room and into the kitchen. The older woman was in shock. A little comfort and hot sweet tea would take the edge off that, but Catherine was going to have a stiff snifter.
“Bloody Eric!, God love him. Nothing is ever simple with that man.” She was fond of Eric and had long ago accepted the major role he played in their lives. Bess adored him and Eric lived for the time they spent together; and William owed almost everything he had achieved to Eric and the Trust. Even though they had not seen Eric for a few years, he was family.
Back in the lounge room William had adjusted the lighting and the men had sat down by the cold fireplace.
“So lets start with what just happened.” William cutting to the heart of the matter. “You just shook off several decades of senescence; and I did note the photonic effects the shaking produced. I’ll assume that they were…., “time”…, though what manner of “time” they were you’ll have to fill me in on later.” William paused before setting off again. “Given how simple it looked to achieve, I’m also assuming that this is something you do regularly. Which begs the question, “why didn’t you…, “reset”, is that what you called it, “reset”; before we got home? Surely whatever it is that has you so concerned might better have been described by an Eric we could recognise, or at the least, one who wouldn’t destroy the equanimity of our housekeeper with parlour tricks. Poor Mrs. Morrow. You’ll have to work hard to get back in her good books.”
William, as ever the practical, pragmatic humanist, had accepted that something entirely outside his experience was happening around him tonight, and he knew that it would take some time to understand what had just happened and what it might mean for his family; but Mrs. Morrow’s mind wasn’t up to such acceptance. What had happened was an assault on her reason, possibly her faith, certainly her everyday experience. William would talk with her as soon as the right opportunity presented itself. He was always able to soothe Mrs. Morrow when she became upset.
“Yes, I really am sorry.” Eric looked genuinely sorry. “You’re right. I was hoping for a long quiet chat with you and Catherine before Bess gets up in the morning. This involves her too.” Eric looked frustrated with himself. “I just buggered it up; I forgot. I’ve been very busy lately.”
“What’s Bess got to do with whatever this is?”
“Just about everything.”
William was internally adjusting to the events of the last few minutes. There was no rational explanation for what Eric had just done, so it was either a kind of mass delusion, or it had happened and it was real; but as yet simply unexplained.
“Eric, I’ve gotten used to the Trust and its funny ways and I’ve always thought, in the back of my mind you understand, that the work of the Trust and my part in it is of a larger scale than I’ve ever been able to accurately gauge. I won’t pretend to understand that scale, or the true nature of the work that you and the others do, and I’ve always been so very grateful for the welcome the Trust gave me and the support it has shown for my work, but what has happened here tonight requires detailed explanation. I’ve got all night, and you appear to have “time” by the neck.”
“So do you William, so do you. You just don’t know it.”
“I’m in no position to debate that point so why don’t you just tell me what you mean.”
A short while later Catherine, having calmed and then helped Mrs. Morrow to bed; leaving a generous measure of brandy in a glass on the bedside table; rejoined William and Eric in the lounge room with the bottle of Hennessy and three balloons.
The men were deep in discussion and seemed almost to be using a different language but Catherine, hearing a few key words, understood that they must be talking about folded space. It was William’s speciality and Eric had been his supervisor and mentor, so there was nothing unusual in their discussion, except the look on William’s face as Eric threw numbers and algorithms around with a kind of hurried urgency. Catherine could see that William was hanging on to every word as though his life depended on it, which incidentally, it did.
Catherine dragged a chair over to join the men and poured the brandy. William and Eric brought their discussion to a temporary close and gratefully accepted the proffered balloons of warming liquor, but Catherine could see that William was deeply distracted.
“You two look like a couple of conspirators. What have you said to William to so distract him?”
Eric offered a gesture suggesting that William might like to field that one.
William, rolling the balloon between his hands, warming the brandy and inhaling the vapours, looked at his wife over the rim of the glass. She could feel his anxiety as William looked directly at her; obviously trying to choose the right words to explain the inexplicable. As usual, William cut straight through to the heart of the matter.
“Leaving aside Eric’s startling performance for the moment;” William said; his face looking as if he was trying to wrestle an answer into submission; “apparently we’re meta-humans,” William said flatly, “both of us; though in different ways; and apparently our daughter is even more “meta” that us.” William stopped at that point to gauge Catherine’s reaction.
She looked at Eric with simple disbelief. “What is this nonsense Eric?”
“All too true I’m afraid.” Eric took a slow sip of the brandy.
“What does he mean darling; and what’s this about Bess too?”
“Eric, you’d better handle this. I’m not sure I’ve understood you well enough to convey even the smallest bit of the important meaning in what you’ve just told me.”
Eric tightened his lips and nodded.
“Catherine, I see you’ve hung a new picture.”
At this both William and Catherine burst out, “Oh, for God’s sake, Eric…” but Eric put his hands up. “Bear with me,” He looked at Catherine more closely. “The picture Catherine; its one of yours, isn’t it? What do you call it?”
Catherine face became a mask of caution. She looked at the painting and then at William and finally at Eric, her face slowly freezing to a quiet stillness. Her reply, “The Fiery Furnace”, was a little anxious.
“Those twisted and tortured elements look like a car; an abstracted, folded car. A car being consumed by a chaos of flames. And those two other elements seemingly emerging from the maelstrom. What was your thinking as you worked on it.?”
A dream from a few moths ago came back to Catherine as if someone had just hit replay.
“It was critique. The ugliness of cars and car related stuff. To hell with it, I thought; burn it all up.” That sounded like bravado. Her quiet deceptive tone suggesting even Catherine didn’t believe that.
“It’s not like you to choose an “ugly” subject. Its quite confronting and yet very beautiful, in its own unapologetic way; but was that really what you were thinking, or did you…see, something else.” Eric was looking right into Catherine’s eyes.
She thought she could almost feel him in her mind, and she knew he was right. The painting wasn’t some kind of social critique, it was history, a waking dream filled with a burning vision of flame and twisted, tortured metal. She remembered the look on little Bess’ face when she had finished the work and called her in to give her opinion.
Bess had looked at the painting and turned to smile at her mummy and said, in all innocence, as though it were the child who had to reassure the mother, “You won’t die Mummy.” It had been a statement of fact, and Bess had given her mum a cuddle and gone back to play with Ellie, leaving Catherine a little perplexed and somewhat shaken.
The painting of the “The Fiery Furnace”, executed with an obsessive haste, had been in response to the vivid and disturbing nightmare that Catherine had had some months ago. The dream, in which she and William had been driving the Humber down Barrenjoey Road towards the little bridge behind Bilgola, had seemingly come from nowhere; and, while she’d “seen” the crash and the subsequent fire, she had been left with a deep uncertainty about the outcome. What had happened to William, what had happened to her? That uncertainty had become the defining theme of the painting. Could one survive death in a fiery crash?
What Catherine had thought or felt at the time, she could no longer accurately remember, but now it seemed that little Bess had already known, and Eric knew too, and William; she looked at William, the man she loved, the father of her child; he knew too it seemed. Catherine was trembling.
“Will we die tomorrow Eric? Or will it be something else?” It seemed a perfectly rational question to Catherine; and one that required an immediate answer.
“You weren’t in the car.” Eric tisked. “Sorry….; you won’t bein the car.”
Catherine looked at William who was nodding his head confirming that Eric was right, everything would turn out OK.
“This is too much!” she exclaimed.
“Yes it is; but I’m also afraid that it might not be enough.” Eric looked down between his knees , wringing his hands a little.
“William you might remember that Einstein claimed, to a friend, that his wife, Elsa, was still alive, though she had died some time ago. His belief in the continuing life of his dead wife was almost certainly a cognitive coping mechanism; he wanted her to be still alive, so he believed it to be true.
Of course I don’t think he really believed he might be able to access that continuing living reality, but it comforted him to think that somewhere, sometime, she was still living.
Einstein was completely right, but really had no clue as to the nature of that life; what it might be constituted of, how she might have lived.
He was still bound up in the sequential nature of existence. He was quite literally a man of his time. Her death, being in the past, simply made her inaccessible to him. Of course he knew just about all there was to know about space and time, at that time. He’d created most of that ontological mass. What he didn’t know was how simple it might have been for him to find Elsa, if he could only transcend the temporal dimension.”
Eric paused to gather his thoughts before plowing on. Catherine and William had been listening closely, probably in the hope of some explanation they could get their material brains around.
“Imagine for a moment that your Humber had a button or switch on the dash that you’d never pushed or flicked. It had just been there when you bought the car. Imagine that, having never had cause or thought to activate the switch, you had also neglected to learn from the manual what the switch was for. What it did. Imagine then that one day a person says to you, “Oh, I see you have the new Humber with the time switch.” and then went on to explain how manipulating the switch gave access to slices of time to which you could “drive” the Humber.”
“Sounds like the set up for a children’s radio serial. “The Horological Humber”; Adventures across the clock. Creates a whole new set of possibilities for the Sunday afternoon drive.” William’s joke seemed to lighten the moment a little.
“Funnily enough, it is about that simple once you get the knack; and believe me, you both have the knack. Let me show you. Let me flick that switch.”
And he did; and both William and Catherine just slumped back in their chairs, their eyes wide with wonder and amazement; their faces flipping from smiles to open mouthed awe, then consternation, then irreducible stupefaction. Whatever it was that Eric had started had nothing to do with the real world and both their minds were entirely taken up with visions; hallucinatory, impossible dreams; but for all the sudden uncertainty, they were in no danger.
Eric observed the couple for a short while, smiling, they’d be like this for a while.
He then wandered back through the dining room to the kitchen and into Mrs. Morrow’s quarters. Slipping quietly into her room he noted with some relief that she had found sleep, though her brow remained furrowed and Eric could see that hers was a troubled sleep. “Well, that’s hardly surprising.” Eric said to himself.
He smiled gently at Mrs. Morrow’s sleeping form and quietly laid a hand on her forehead.
Mrs. Morrow’s brow relaxed and a hint of a smile appeared on her lips. “There, that’s better isn’t it?”
Satisfied, Eric rejoined William and Catherine who were still lying in their respective chairs, their eyes now closed, their breathing deep and regular. Behind their closed eyelids Eric noted the REM like flickering of their eyes and he wished more than anything that he could see what they were seeing in the way they were seeing it. It cast his mind back to his own Damascene moment; his own conversion to the new, bigger reality. That moment when all the contradictory, confusing uncertainties of his everyday human existence had transmuted into a new teleology that was both staggering in its extent and implications, and yet, uplifting and invigorating. A new life, a life without end.
But that had been so long ago, and his memory had discarded so much more than it held that his existence had become a day to day thing, always in the moment; until he had become aware of the coming trouble.
He crept away from William and Catherine and found his way to Bess room at the rear of the house.
Slipping inside he sat down on the edge of Bess’ bed. Bess’ little Staffie, Ellie, was curled up with her on the bed. Bess was sleeping soundly and Eric could tell that she was dreaming, so he insinuated himself into her dream. He knew she wouldn’t mind.
Little Bess was playing with Ellie on a grassy hillside covered in wild flowers. In the distance there was a range of high snow covered mountains from which direction a light, cool breeze was blowing. Ellie was chasing butterflies, leaping and barking in an exposition of doggy joy. A glorious sun backlit the fluffy clouds as the breeze swayed the flowers in the sunshine. Bess turned towards Eric and seeing him, jumped up and ran to him, wrapping her arms around his middle. Eric stooped and picked her up, holding her out at arm’s length; Ellie leaping at his feet.
“How’s my favourite girl?”
“Perfectly fine, thank you Uncle Ecci” she offered rather formally, before he brought her in and they gave one another an enormous hug full of good feelings.
“This is a dream isn’t it Ecci?”
“Yes sweetheart, it is; but I just had to see how my favourite Little Miss was doing.”
“Is it time Ecci. Is that why you’ve come?”
“Yes my darling, it’s time.” He put Bess down and Ellie fussed around her, then standing up against Bess, in that way that Staffies do, Ellie looked from Eric to Bess and back again. She barked once.
“Can Ellie come too Ecci. She loves adventure.”
“Yes Ellie can come too. In fact Ellie’s a very important little girl, we couldn’t be without Ellie.”
“That’s good. I wouldn’t want to be without Ellie, and Mummy and Daddy of course.”
“That’s right, we’ll all be going together; but I have some other things to do now, so you have fun and we’ll see one another when you wake up in the morning.”
“This is going to be the biggest adventure…” Little Bess stooped and grabbed up a stick, then threw it down the hill for Ellie to fetch. As she ran down the hill after Ellie she shouted over her shoulder, “See you then. Love you.”
Eric felt a swell of emotion. Little Bess was so full of innocent wonder and enthusiasm for life. Even the strangest things seemed unable to unsettle her.
Eric slid back to his place on Bess’ bedside, smiling down at the little girl’s sleeping form. He stood slowly and crept from the room.
Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula
09 Possible and Probable 02
“Can I get you anything?” Pip was eager to make Bess comfortable. “I know you like a cuppa and a biscuit. I think we’ve got some of those “Morning Coffees” in a jar. I like them. I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?”
“Yes that would be lovely.” Bess dumped her back pack beside her usual chair and collapsed into the smooth studded leather. She watched the young man as he filled the kettle and got some cups and saucers ready, emptied and rinsed the pot in the small sink.
“There’s a lot to be done tonight so a good strong cuppa is warranted; but we’ll have to wait until Eric gets back with…..” Pip paused, “Well, he’ll be back, in a minute.” He didn’t look to see if Bess had caught his almost slip. Pip put several biscuits on a plate and paused again before turning to Bess, his smile once again firmly affixed across his face.
It was niggling Bess that she couldn’t place him in her mind. Since he opened the door she’d had the growing feeling that she knew him, perhaps quite well. It was infuriating.
“Pip, have we ever met before?”
“I can say with my hand on my heart,” he put his hand on his heart, “that I have never met you before.” His eyes then sharpened a little, Bess noticed.
She smiled at him. “But you knew who I was when you opened the door…”, the smile still there.
“Oh no you don’t, Bess Stafford! You’re not going to catch me that easily!” Pip blustered, jumping and twisting on the spot to avoid Bess’ gaze, and that smile. Bess sat quietly watching him, wondering. She relaxed her smile. This was getting both serious and interesting.
“Relax Pip. I was just wondering.” but what Bess was wondering was, “Catch what, how?”
Pip turned slowly, ready to avert his face immediately he spied that smile; but Bess wasn’t smiling. She had a look of genuine interest, concern.
“I’m sorry, its just that; well the truth is that Eric….. I’m not to say. You’ll have to ask Eric.” Pip almost pouted like a infant. “I’m not the same as the rest of you.” he said with both disappointment and frustration. His face had become like that of a thwarted child.
Once again Bess was forced to wonder; who are “the rest of you” and in what way was Pip different; because it was obviously an important difference to Pip.
Bess could see that Pip’s natural inclination was to garrulously roll out the entire mystery from the buff enveloped invitation to his own curious behaviour; and the shadows of things unseen, unsaid; but he couldn’t. Like a show jumper that baulks again and again at the jump both horse and rider know they can easily get over, Pip opened his mouth several times, obviously intending to speak; but each time he didn’t make the first sound.
Bess felt a warm empathy for the young man. He was definitely odd and he seemed a little emotionally fragile, yet he had a certain confidence; something strong and durable about him too. His presence said a great deal about him. That Eric would leave him to greet a stranger also meant something. Eric always had his reasons.
Bess tried to lighten the moment.
“So what’s Eric been up to lately? I haven’t dropped by for yonks. Are you on the QC course Pip?”
“No. I’m not up to all that apparently, and Eric…, well Eric follows his own path most of the time. He’s been very busy lately, working on something to do with big numbers. I’m not all that cluey on numbers so its all Greek to me.”
“Are you local?” It could have meant anything; local Glebe or Newtown; local Sydney, local NSW.
“Yes, I’ve got a place in Glebe; actually, I had a place in Glebe….” Pip looked at Bess as if he’d let something slip again Bess noticed. Why couldn’t she resolve who Pip was?
“Moving’s a bugger. Got your eye on something?” This is such an ordinary conversation you won’t even realise you’re being interrogated.
“I may be able to go back to my old place. I’m just not sure about the timing.”
“You could say that.”
“What do you do Pip?”
The young man looked suddenly tense, a little afraid.
“Not much. You might say that I’m one of Eric’s assistants.” A cagey response absent any real information.
“He’s a fascinating man. Astonishing intellect.”
Now Pip was getting more agitated. “Yes I suppose he is, has. But I wouldn’t know!”
There was that almost pout again. Bess knew that Pip did know who and what Eric was, what he was up to. He just wasn’t saying, and the effort to keep his mouth shut was frustrating to him. Bess determined that Pip was a fundamentally honest person who became disconcerted when he had to lie or dissemble. Another thing that Bess was becoming fond of in him.
“Well not everyone is destined to look into the abyss; and even those that do remain themselves having done so. There’s a wonderful saying from Master Kong; “Before enlightenment; chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment; chopping wood and carrying water.” The burden of life is different for each of us but we still share our common responsibilities, to ourselves, to others.”
“Yes.” was all Pip said to that. A firm yes brooking no demur. Bess got the distinct impression that our common humanity and mutual obligation were things that Pip held high. She saw, for the first time, the hard edge in Pip. These were things he’d fight for.
Pip brought the tray with the tea things over and sat it all on a table between the two studded leather Queen Ann chairs. Bess was already occupying one of them and Pip dumped his bum in the other.
“Shall I be Mother?” Pip said as he poured the tea into Bess cup. “I know you don’t have milk or sugar.”
“How do you know Pip? How do you know so much about me?” Bess was smiling gently at the young man; and then she saw it all. It happened so quickly that Pip hadn’t even noticed.
Bess hand went to her mouth, smothering the silent “Oh my god!”, her eyes wide with disbelief and wonder. “Living dead people everywhere! No sting, no victorious grave. Life triumphant!”
Bess couldn’t work out if that was more of the gobbledygook or whether her mind had finally taken leave of its senses. And then Eric appeared as if by magic from behind her chair.
Bess jumped as if electrified, her whole body trembling, “Hell’s bells, Eric, you frightened the life out of me! How did you do that….?” she said rising and twisting to look behind the chair
Eric gently grasped her arm and leant down to kiss her on the forehead. “Sorry Bess.” As he drew back up he gave Bess a thorough looking over.
He turned to Pip, “You’ve told her haven’t you?” His tone was stern.
Pip stood up out of the chair. “No, honestly Eric I haven’t said a word, honestly.”
“He didn’t have to. I saw it for myself,” Bess said firmly, her face a little stiff, wary. Bess was buzzing with curiosity, anticipation, a little fear, much perplexity; all mashing together, making competing demands on her adrenalin and neurochemical production. Her brain was on fire, she couldn’t think straight. She had just “seen” inside Pip, inside his mind and in a split second she had seen his day down to the smallest detail. Pip was more than odd; he was positively out of this world, figuratively and literally.
“You two had better start talking because this has just entered the Twilight Zone and I’m beginning to feel a little out of the loop.” Pip looked pointedly at Eric and moved a little way into the shadows.
“Well, we’re over step one.’ Eric said with a look like it had all happened too fast. “What did you see, Bess. In detail, please.”
“Well I saw the shambles of a day our young novelist here has had.” she turned to Pip “Escape Lawful Custody carries a hefty fine and possible gaol time, you’re lucky that bottle of Absinthe didn’t connect or it would be very much more serious;” she scolded Pip before turning back to Eric, “but that pales to nothing compared to how his day started.” Bess narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “I was there Eric, in the house in Glebe, earlier today. Held the hand of his grieving neighbour. In fact I have a back pack full of Pip. A dead Pip, who I can now see isn’t actually dead at all. Bess looked at Pip. “I knew I knew you.” she said, like she had just hooked a fish.
Pip was beginning to look queasy, “I’m sorry Bess, really I am but I couldn’t tell you. Eric wouldn’t let me.” He really did look sorry and Bess could tell it was genuine. Not surprising given that she had just seen how high Pip held her and the regard he had for her.
Bess turned to look at Pip directly. “….and what was all that business before breakfast this morning; The Dixie Cups in all their slightly out of tune glory doing “Chapel of Love”, and you faux crooning into your spoon, dancing with the straw broom…,” Bess paused, drew a long nasal breath, “while you fantasised about dancing with me! You just don’t strike me as the “Chapel of Love” type, so what was that about Pip?”
Pip went bright red and looked at the floor while Eric, looking away, stifled a laugh.
“…and what are you laughing at? What’s going on Eric?” Bess was now drawing on her hard nosed copper routine.
Bess moved forward to sit on the edge of the chair. “You look like you did when I first met you. How’s that Eric?” But Bess was running out of emotional steam. The impossibilities were just piling one on top of the other and Bess wasn’t sure how long she could stay upright, fighting it all, pushing it back, trying to find a pattern, to make sense of it.
She collapsed back into the once familiar leather of the chair. Eric’s rooms, previously a kind of sanctuary, had begun to seem alien, threatening; and no amount of tea and biscuits was going to change that.
“Bloody Boudica on a bicycle; just tell me Eric!” Bess closed her eyes and ran her fingers through her thick curly hair.
“There’s no easy way to explain all this, and we need to get over the next hurdle, so I’m going to have to just push through. I’m sorry Bess but you’re going to have to prepare yourself for the shock of your life, quite literally.”
Bess looked up; a worried look on her face. Eric went round to stand beside Bess and put a hand on her shoulder, “You ready?”
“How the bloody hell should I know?” Bess was greatly upset and confused. She had hardly ever raised her voice to Eric. “Oh look, I’m sorry Eric but today has been nothing short of… well I don’t know what. Let’s just say I’m ready and we’ll see what happens.”
“OK.” Eric leant down and kissed Bess on the top of her head. She in turn gripped his hand on her shoulder.
“You can come out now.” Eric said to the door in the corner of the room. It was his private room, a sort of monk’s cell; bed, small wardrobe and writing desk. He used it on those nights when finding his way home in the small hours was too much trouble.
The door being behind her, Bess turned in the chair as Eric tightened his grip on her shoulder. Bess held his hand similarly.
A woman came slowly out of the room. Bess’ first impression was of a plumpish woman in her sixties, thick salt and pepper grey hair. She was dressed for summer in the bush and was wearing a pair of worn camouflage patterned trousers curiously covered in pockets. She seemed very apprehensive about entering the room.
She came slowly out of the shadows into the pool of light over the Queen Ann chairs and made her way around to a position in front of Bess and Eric. Pip was now standing back, almost motionless; his hands in front of himself as if in prayer, a huge smile on his face.
“Hello Bess.” the woman said. Her voice was soft, careful. She stepped in to the area immediately in front of Bess’ chair and squatted before Bess, looking deeply into her eyes. “This is as much a shock for me as it is for you. I’m just lost for words.” The woman smiled and shook her head. “I don’t know what to say. I can’t even say how I got here, but here we are.”
A shock of recognition jolted Bess like a charge of electricity had shot through her whole being. She began to tremble almost uncontrollably. She was looking at herself. An older Bess, but there was no mistaking it. It was her.
“Oh yes, Bess its me, you, us. Oh I don’t know, but here we are.” The older Bess leaned in and wrapped her arms around her younger self in a huge hug. Younger Bess just began to cry openly, unashamedly. It was all so overwhelming, and what could it mean, and how, what had just happened, how, how, how………
Story and Graphic by Warrigal Mirriyuula
08 Who Is Bess (2019)
“Then you’d better tell me who I am and what I’m to do.”
“Well you obviously know who you are as far as your life up to this point is concerned. None of this changes any of that. You’re the you that holds the memories of your existence, your experiences and learning, insights and your dreams. There is only one you and you are it. The one and only Bess Stafford. Genetics took care of that. You are, in fact, Elizabeth Ruth Stafford, decorated police officer and investigator. But that’s not all you are. It’s whatyou are that is probably more important than whoyou are. It’s what you are that makes you so important, indeed, it makes you unique. So let me try and lay this out for you.
Some decades ago it became apparent to cosmologists and astrophysicists that the universe was continuing to expand and that expansion could not be adequately explained by any of the current models of reality.
Do you know anything about M theory and branes, string theory; any of those sorts of things?
I like the physical sciences. I like their rigour. I try to keep up, and yes, I’ve heard of these things and have a laypersons understanding. They’re all about higher dimensions, over and above the four we know and live within.
Well here in the material universe you’re human, as I am, here. But through the discordance, on the other side, we are both tensors in the mathematics of those higher dimensional spaces; incredibly complex algorithms, you much more so than me of course, Those mathematics define an idea of reality that is specific to each of us, but also general to the greater space, like ingredients in a cake.”
“Sort of like the sugar that becomes the sweetness. This is the field Dad worked in; Folded Space Time.”
“So you’re saying that when we jump through “The Discordance,” Bess capitalised the words verbally, “we lose our materiality and become…, what exactly?” She’d clarify exactly what “The Discordance” was when she’d discovered where it led to.
“Heard of dark energy and dark matter?”
“Of course. They’re alI the unseen stuff that accounts for the majority of the mass of the universe. If I remember correctly dark energy is about 70%, and dark matter about 25% and together they may be responsible for inflation, the continuing expansion of the universe post big bang.”
“Yes that’s right, here, but that’s not all they are. What do you know about the Zero Point Field?”
“Its a quantum vacuum space of incredibly low energy; theoretically at absolute zero temperature, so no potential or kinetic energy. Yet I seem to remember that none the less things still pop into and out of existence even when there is no energy gradient to exploit.”
Yes they do; but most of those spontaneous creations burst like bubbles in the sun. They expend their brief existence coming into being and then decaying. You know about Heisenberg and Schroedinger?
“Uncertainty and Entanglement?”
“Right. So much for Einstein’s “spukhafte Fernwirkung.”
Well, every now and then one pops into existence and abides. This is usually the result of the intersection of those branes I mentioned earlier. Without going into the mechanics of it all, these spontaneous and persistent little tangles of corpuscular energy can become entire universes following there own physics, rolling out to their natural conclusions.
This universe of yours, ours really, is just such a one. One of many, very many. Though this one has been modelled for stability and its ability to support biological life. Beings just like you and me, Bess; and all the other creatures that have ever existed on this beautiful blue green ball and all the other balls of rainbow colours that fill this universe. This universe is a school for solving the problems of biological life. That is why you are here, why you’ll go through the curricula so many times. This is your school, where you have and will learn all that you’ll need to finally join those beings, including your parents, who have matriculated to a higher dimensional set.”
“Those higher dimensional sets sounds notionally like a kind of heaven.”
“A heaven with its own problems, but yes, in a way. There is a school of thought that suggests that the human concept of gods and heaven is a kind of foreshadowing infusion of that possible future where all will be revealed and made good, where the individual can move mountains. A kind of garden to which all the world’s Candides retire to contemplate and create the best of all possible worlds.”
“You also started out as one of those energetic little balls. You’re your own little universe, modelled by your parents consciousness, and their human genes of course, and finished off in the fire of life.”
“Their consciousness? I don’t understand. Do you mean that what was on their mind when I was conceived had a determining effect on how I would turn out?”
“Sort of; in fact its all down to consciousness; but these weren’t random thoughts, nor were they merely the cognitive components of the sex act, whatever that may be when its at home. Your parents entered what would commonly be called a trance state. Be thinking the Buddhist’s “Om”; a means to access one’s true self and mind. Of course its wasn’t really a trance, it was more like a functioning “Om”, a sort of “fOmmmmm” that allowed them to synchronise their consciousnesses and hold an idea of you as a living potential field, and then to transfer one of those tiny corpuscles of energy from the ZPF into that potential field.”
“Oh my giddy aunt! I’m a “star baby”!” Bess imagined a naked baby sitting in the core of The Large Hadron Collider. The baby was laughing.
This was really getting difficult to keep a grip on. Like sand running through her fingers, Bess was only able to understand a little of what Hansen was saying. The rest was just running away. She’d have to sweep it all up later for further analysis.
“Were my…., are my parents like me? Do they have these super powers?”
“Oh yes; and quite powerful powers they are too; but very abstract. Your parents were never really meant for this world. They were only ever destined for a single iteration before matriculation. Of course, they weren’t meant to disappear from your life in the way they did. That was, or will be, the result of exigent circumstances. There’s simply not enough time to fully brief you on all the aspects of what’s happening and why it all has to be so urgent.”
“But Eric, I’ve just been an ordinary copper plodding my way through, and now you tell me I’m really some George Lucas fantasy character.”
“There’s nothing ordinary about you, Bess.
You’ll remember that little boy you found in the New England Ranges back in the early eighties. He’s about to put his hand up for the seat of Armidale. He’ll be standing as an independent at the next election and he’ll shoo it in. He’ll remain the member for Armidale until his retirement in 2052, by which time he will have been PrimeMinister in the first government made up entirely of independent candidates. You were, or should I say will be, the proximate determining factor in that outcome. You see if you hadn’t found him when you did, well stochastic factors would have set in and in all likelihood…” Hansen’s face saddened.
“You know what’s really beginning to bother me is whether or not I did any of these things on my own; or were you there, always nudging here, restraining there, pushing ideas into my mind. I know you have access. I’ve seen you many times in daydreams, or when I’ve been thinking of you. Am I just some sort of glorified tool?”
“Marx believed we are all the tools of history.”
“Yes, well Marx believed a lot of things, but that’s not an answer.”
“No, of course not. You’re able to determine your own life, follow your own hunches, pursue your own dreams, you have “free will”. I’ve only got access to your conscious processes and you have to, in a sense, invite me in. I can only suggest, I can’t compel you to do anything. I’ve gotten used to being the irresistible force when it comes to taking a look “inside” and giving a gentle nudge, that’s my burden; but you are the immoveable object. There is no shifting you from your chosen purpose.”
“You talk about these iterations. How many iterations will I go through?”
I don’t really know. Its uncertain; though I have seen six of you so far.
What? No idea at all? Sounds like the wheel of life. Is what’s through “The Discordance” like the bardo?
We’ll not be going all the way through this time. We’ll be using it as a transport hub, sort of like an interchange, but yes the space we’ll be going through, an an intermediate space, which is, yes, actually like the bardo, in the sense that it is a place between your present life and a kind of rebirth as the new improved you, but only if you view it from this human perspective. When you get there it won’t seem like the bardo at all. Humans have never been very good at imagining transcendence or what “heaven” may actually look like; but then how do you imagine the non existent?
You see time is our problem here. Materiality requires the arrow of time. Without it reality becomes incomprehensible to the human mind, just a blur of instantaneous sections of the quantum waveform collapse. Pick a moment, any moment and it will be a perfectly formed three dimensional data cloud…, like those images of chaos that were so popular back in the 90’s, nothing like a photograph or image you can interrogate, it will entirely lack context.
Each moment is just itself; but add time, and you get process; context and meaning emerge. Consciousness feeds on that meaning and re-contextualises it further, creating narratives of possibility, pursuing the future, re-interrogating the past, turning the present into a never ending flame fuelled by the past to fire the future.”
“Heraclitean Fire. Will I become an “immortal diamond” as Hopkins hoped he would?”
“In time, perhaps in time.
You see Bess, nothing is really as it seems. From those tiny quanta spontaneously emerging, to federal elections, famines and warfare, nothing in this world is as described on the tin. Everything is always subtly different, serving another purpose, seeking the resolution of an undisclosed, hidden agenda. Good works and bad, its all the same to the universe. It just keeps on keeping on like the old paint ad; and just like paint on a wall, what you see is the paint, not the wall behind it.”
That’s right. Ingersoll knew a thing or two about the reality of reality. There never has been “right and “wrong”, just what happens next. That’s the glory of biological materiality. The future is always unknown, a Peter Pan adventure for adults.
I loved Peter when I was young, but now I see him in so many people; childish pride, boastfulness, lacking any real long view. We can’t all be Peter. It just doesn’t work.
Yes, things have come to a bit of a sorry pass at this point in human history, but you’re on the side of the angels; at least in as much as the angels have a side.
Alright, let’s say that while I don’t understand even a small part of what you’re suggesting, I can accept all that you’ve said. Mainly because its you that’s said it. Let’s say that I’m willing to accompany you through The Discordance. There’s just one thing I need to understand. What has marijuana got to do with all this?
Ah, yes, the welcoming weed. That’s quite simple really. If you were to just jump into the discordance unprepared it might very well shred your consciousness to unconnected filaments and that’d be the end of that. You’d still exist but as discrete sets of individual ideas no longer networked to each other, you would literally lose all meaning. When, if, you came back after such a traverse you’d almost certainly be a mental wreck; aphasia, inability to maintain coherent thought, loss of motor control. It wouldn’t be pretty.
Getting stoned loosens the mind by adding a stochastic element to your consciousness at the quantum level. Think of it as a preventative pill to forestall the worst headache you could ever imagine. It slows the sorting leading to the quantum collapse, creates a kind of rubberyness that allows your consciousness to stretch and twist without actually tearing itself asunder.
“It’s a relaxant.”
“Simply put, yes. Marijuana has a clinical effect like no other in this application.”
“We had to smoke some dope on a course I was on years ago. I hacked and coughed my way through the joint, I just felt silly. Oh and hungry. I got the munchies. Then I began to worry that they were all looking at me. To be frank it wasn’t all that pleasant.”
“Well there’ll be none of that tonight. I’ve been breeding weed for….., Well lets just say I’ve got it down.”
“Alright then. Lets go.”
“Good thinking. While we’ve got some time left here, I would, none the less, like to get you to a place of safety as quickly as possible. Once we get there we can talk through all this and I can give a sufficiently detailed briefing.” Eric opened the small shiny hinged tin and got out a packet of Tally Ho papers and a small zip lock bag of mull.
Bess watched as Eric rolled the joints, noting how very good at it he was. The finished tube and its contents an almost perfect cylinder, one end folded over, the other fitted with a small roll of thin cardboard; something the lips could hold without sogging up the rolled paper. The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers had nothing on Eric.
When he’d finished rolling he handed one of the joints to Bess who accepted it awkwardly, not really knowing what to do or how to hold the thing. He put another to his own lips and flicking the Zippo, applied the flame, drawing down a very generous lungful of smoke.
While he held his breath he indicated with the Zippo that Bess should put the joint to her lips. She did so and Eric applied the flame while Bess tried in her inexpert way to ape Eric. It may very well have been the best weed in the world but Bess still fell to hacking and coughing. When she’d regained her composure she held the joint at low arms length and gave it a look, then turned to Eric with a big grin on her face.
She took a few more tokes, the coughing abating as the smoke took its effect. With Eric’s continued encouragement she finished the joint.
She was a little unsteady after smoking the reefer and let go the occasional giggle.
“This is ridiculous.” Bess muttered under her breath. She felt a bit foolish having arrived at retirement and never having recreationally smoked a joint in her life and now here she was acting on evidence she couldn’t really say was actually evidence and behaving as if she understood what she was doing. The truth was she didn’t really have a clue. And the whole lot was now lain over with weed wonder.
“OK, are you ready Bess?” Bess giggled a yes.
“Look into my eyes. Make sure you hold them in your view until we pass through the discordance.”
“I’m as ready as a person who’s never done this before and has no idea what to expect, but yes,” Bess giggled again, “I’m as ready as ever I’ll be.”
Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula
07 Out of The Fiery Furnace (1962)
The Humber Super Snipe purred up Barrenjoey Road from Newport, taking the climb over the headland in its smooth stride. Inside the car it was warm and comfortable. ABC radio was playing Alfred Hill’s Symphony No 8, “The Mind of Man”, and William Stafford was idly musing on the piece as he drove, noting similarities in the voicing of the orchestration that had an affinity with Arnold Bax’ “Tintagel”. Being contemporaneous composers probably explained that. Even high art has its fashions.
Catherine Stafford was sleeping in the passenger seat, her head resting on a small rough velvet cushion against the door pillar. There was the intimation of a smile on her sleeping face and William, taking a quick glance at his wife, felt that same old urgent twinge so often mistaken for the butterflies of anxiety, but which is nothing less than a visceral reaction to, and a physiological manifestation of the unexpected apprehension of love. William thought that Catherine was simply the most beautiful person he had ever known and believed himself unbelievably lucky that she had chosen him.
Catherine had been very popular with the other young men at Sydney University. So much so that William, a very reserved young man from the country, had thought he didn’t stand an earthly chance. This sense of foregone failure must have seeped into his facial expressions giving William the caste of a poet lost in love.
He would see her in the Union, The Pleasaunce garden; always surrounded by eager young men and young women besotted with her beauty; but what William didn’t know was that Catherine, whilst charmed certainly, flattered of course, was not exactly bored, but certainly not interested in allowing these attentions to bloom into anything with the scent of spring. She had her eye on a young man with whom she had never even spoken. A physics student with the face of a sad poet.
She often spied him from the corner of her eye, and if their eyes met, it was only ever briefly. The young physics student would shuffle away as if suddenly remembering something he had to do.
The truth was William just shattered every time he saw Catherine. How could he approach her? “I’m such a dummy!” he would tell himself. He began to believe that it was an impossible dream and, with First Year sliding towards examinations, he had better get down to the books or this “star crossing” might be the end of his University career.
He made a point to avoid the places where he might see Catherine. If she so much as popped into his mind; something that happened unbidden several times a day; he would think of complex differential equations, hoping that the cognitive power required to mentally drive these calculations would leave little left for the winsome intrusions of Catherine’s beautiful face.
So it was that for all of second and third year they hardly laid eyes on one another. They had no lectures in common. Catherine was studying Fine Arts. Her head was in Michelangelo’s clouds searching for the numinous. Across campus William’s head was in a cloud chamber searching for tiny evanescent particles that screwed themselves out of existence almost as soon as they had appeared. In his bleaker moments William equated these short-lived particles with his own chances with Catherine.
But just as absence is said to make the heart grow fonder; (perhaps in this case the archaic “fond” was more accurate. William certainly felt like a fool, and this programmed avoidance just made his yearning that much harder to bear); William tried but could not succeed in moving on from his infatuation with Catherine; who, in her turn, found that she spent a great deal of her time wondering and speculating about William Stafford.
Sublimation had seen them both do spectacularly in their Honours program and they were both contemplating what might be next when they both, separately, received invitations to a ball to be held at St Paul’s College to celebrate the end of the academic year.
William wasn’t going to go. He didn’t really get on with the Rugger Rowdies from the colleges. It wasn’t really him. Not that William was antisocial; it was that he was socially awkward to the point of embarrassment, and the prospect of having to make small talk, or worse, dance with a girl, filled him with dread. Besides, he assumed that Catherine wouldn’t be there so what was the point? “My God! What would be the point even if she was going to be there?” he found himself saying out loud. He’d never be able to overcome his shy diffidence to so much as even cross the floor in her general direction.
The world turns no matter the pressing concerns of the love lost; and so, in the week before the ball he had unexpectedly seen Catherine in the Quad resulting in the usual sudden sense of weightlessness such sightings brought forth in him. A friend with him at the time noted the look of confusion that swept across William’s face at the sighting, and quickly turned to spy the cause. The young woman coming out of the Nicholson vestibule was absolutely gorgeous, and he turned back at his friend with a look of respect, impressed that William had set his sights so high.
“You never know, Billy Boy; faint heart and the fair maiden, what?” His friend always affected silly British locutions, but William had to admit he was running out of opportunities, and excuses. He was going to take Lady Macbeth’s advice and screw his courage to the sticking place, and then hope like hell that things turned out better for him and Catherine than it did for the Macbeths. That was the problem with these old literary saws. They often came from places that didn’t really support their contemporary usage; a different world.
William nodded to his friend, a gesture of both confirmation, and parting. He strode down the cloister on the western side of the quad towards the MacLaurin stairs. He had to go to the library anyway. He could fake a meeting he thought. Just run into her. It was a clumsy plan and didn’t take into account the fact that Catherine would almost certainly see right through it; and what would he say anyway?
As it turned out Catherine had seen him coming and planned her own cute meeting. She would call out to him and open with a question about X-Rays and their application in certifying the authenticity of old masters. Catherine had discovered that William was fast eclipsing his professors in the area of x-ray diffraction.
One of William’s tutors, no doubt hoping to ingratiate himself with the beautiful Catherine, had let on that no less a person than Sir Lawrence Bragg, Australian head of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, youngest recipient of the Nobel for physics and world expert in X-ray crystallography, had offered William a position at that prestigious lab.
Catherine had been working on “the first question” for some months. She wanted something that could combine their two separate interests and after receiving the intelligence on William from his tutor, she had finally settled on x-rays as the key to open the lock on William’s sociability. She hoped that it might help her see inside the diffident young man, draw him out so she could engage him in conversation.
So, like two of Williams accelerator particles, each with their own energy, each with their own purpose, they collided at the bottom of the MacLaurin stairs and something new was created between them. It had been just a light bump, followed immediately by hurried apologies and innocent smiles. William of course was then simply struck dumb, so Catherine piled up her courage and asked William about x rays and old masters. William, feeling on more solid ground here, burst into a speech giving Catherine all that he knew about x-rays and x-ray crystallography.
It would have been obvious to any observer that Catherine was only understanding a tiny fraction of the information that flowed from William’s babbling lips. Yet she seemed to maintain a look of earnest interest; her eyes moving all over his animated face. She was trying to see through the young intellectual palimpsest. To see the William that only this morning she had admitted to herself, she loved. She knew it was silly. How can you love someone you’ve never really spoken to; but she was certain this was love none the less.
She loved the way William spent a great deal of his time alone with his head in a book, occasionally looking up, as if to speculate on his reading, before looking back down and carrying on. She loved the way he walked around campus, his confident stride, his expressive face, curious and alive to all that was happening around him, but most of all she loved him for his version of “The Arab’s Farewell to His Steed” which she had seen him perform at a Victoriana night held in The Great Hall.
His spoken performance had been accompanied by sentimentally sad piano; the accompanist dressed in full evening togs. William had on brown face and suitably draping Arab costume with a keffiyeh on his head. His rendition was full of hammy emotion fully appropriate to the Arab’s loss; his arms wide, his face to heaven, a picture of that loss; and as he spoke the lines, “I could not live a day, and know that we should meet no more!” Catherine had felt a powerful shiver move through her leaving her quite excited. She knew the line referred to the Arab’s steed, but my goodness! it had started something in her. Even her girlfriend noticed.
“Are you alright Cat? You aren’t feeling feint?”
“Oh, yes. A little.” Catherine let out a slow nasal breath. “No. It isn’t that. I’m alright. I’m fine.” A broad and quite frank smile took up post on Catherine’s face.
She was still reliving William’s performance, and its affect on her, when she realised that William had finished rattling on about x-rays and was looking at her with a certain expectation of response. She just smiled at him and that turned out to be the end of their beginning.
Side by side, they’d climbed the MacLaurin stairs to the library and made their way down to a table in the back, for privacy; where they had spent the next several hours just talking, very quietly of course.
William had found it surprisingly easy to talk to Catherine and his reserve was gradually replaced with an eager, almost boyish enthusiasm; and she had found, confirmed at last, that he was more than just a handsome young physicist with a yen for bad Victorian poetry. He was blindingly bright, sharper, more incisive than a microtome. He seemed knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, but he was also gentle and kind hearted, he was empathic and seemed most concerned that Catherine should be comfortable with him, that she thinks well of him. He need not have worried on that account.
In the course of their peripatetic talk they covered an enormous amount of territory between them, finding commonalities and likenesses, shared tastes, values and similar aspirations for the future; and they discovered that they had both received Paul’s Ball invitations. So it was that when the librarian came to tell them it was closing time and they’d have to leave, both William and Catherine had begun to make certain basic assumptions about each other and their shared future. They didn’t discuss these assumptions. They didn’t need to. They had found one another.
At the ball they had sat alone and talked, they had laughed together, made silly intimate jokes together, even danced to some of the slower tunes played by the small orchestra. It had all turned out to be so simple, so easy.
William was surprised how quickly he picked up the steps and by the end of the evening he had begun to think that he didn’t mind dancing at all. It wasn’t so hard and his occasional clumsy missteps were soon forgotten holding Catherine in his arms, the couple seemingly existing inside their own bubble of young love. It was a Champagne night that William and Catherine had toasted to the dregs.
As the night drew to its inevitable close, they picked their way through the debris of the ball, the tired orchestra playing a ragged “God Save The King”. Stepping over inebriated undergraduates they both realised they too were a little tiddly, but neither wanted the magic evening to end. It was late and they thought they might go into town, perhaps a bite and a glass of Frontignac at Lorenzinis. In its turn, but only after a few Frontignacs, more talk and long pauses where they simply looked at one another, even Lorenzinis closed.
William and Catherine found themselves sobering as the sun rose. They’d walked and talked their way down Elizabeth Street and finally to the Quay where the early ferries were steaming up, the warming morning air filling with sooty smuts as the boilers came to pressure.
The day shift was just coming on at the Maritime Services site as William and Catherine, leaning over the sea wall, looked down into the water filled with flashing and darting juvenile Yellowtails and sinuous swaying sea weed. William was trying to model the chaos of the water as it slapped against the slimy seawall while Catherine saw only the beauty of the fish and their weedy resort.
They must have looked a sight amongst the early hurrying workers, William in his tailed dinner suit and Catherine in a ball gown and short cape. Some of the Maritime Services workers, noting the line of Catherine’s bottom as she leant over the sea wall, showed their appreciation of Catherine’s beauty with shrill wolf whistles; and when Catherine turned to acknowledge the men with a beautiful smile and a wave, they had spontaneously erupted in applause. William, at first put out, then awkward, relaxed and acknowledged that the men probably had no choice, just as he William felt he had no choice. Catherine was simply that beautiful.
William had not taken up the PhD offer from the Cavendish, instead he had taken up a late offer from a private philanthropic trust that had offered William a free hand and an open bank account to study Folded Space Time. It wasn’t what William had been working on but the offer, made by the man who would be his supervisor, and the possibilities the research program offered, sounded absolutely fascinating and so William had accepted. It would be a new adventure befitting William’s increasingly adventurous bent.
Catherine had decided that she wouldn’t pursue an offer from the Coulthard Institute in London. It had been very flattering that they had thought so highly of such a young woman; but if William was staying in Sydney, so would she.
They had married soon after in a local magistrates’ chambers. A small affair; just the happy couple, her parents, and Catherine’s great aunt Primula Gilfilian, or Mrs. G; as the family always called her. William’s father had not been able to attend. He was dealing with flooding on the family property. He sent his best wishes to them both and hopes that he’d be able to see them soon. He came a few months later, to much fanfare and feasting.
Mrs. G let go a bombshell over coffee at the end of the first family dinner, a kind of second wedding feast with William’s father as special guest. Given who they were the discussion, prior to Mrs. G.’s bombshell, had been lively and at times humorous, was none the less serious.
They’d been talking about education spending and discussing the Education Minister, Bob Heffron and his plans to establish more universities, particularly in the country. The general consensus had stabilised at “Good Thing” when Mrs. G, ’til now not really having much to contribute, piped in.
“Education is so important.” said Mrs. G in her brogue. “In no time you’ll be havin’ to make decisions aboot the wean.” Mrs G was looking at Catherine’s tummy. Catherine’s mouth was hanging slightly open. She still managed to make her way to Mrs. G’s meaning.
The rest of the table just looked from Mrs G to Catherine and back again.
“You didn’t know…, none a ya?” Mrs G asked the table. Catherine, her face moving from speechless immobility to a slow shake, mouthed “No.” The others just seemed stunned though smiles were beginning to crack across the faces.
“Oo, I am sorry to let the cat out of the bag like that; but y’are.” Mrs G took a sip of her soda water. She never drank alcohol.
William took his left hand off the Humber’s wheel and pushed it through the already greying hair at his temple. That was nearly ten years ago.
He looked at Catherine again and saw that she had been looking at him.
“We’re nearly home.” he said and smiled.
“Mmmmhmmm…..” was all Catherine said as she wriggled herself up straight in the seat.
They pulled into the drive of their home at Whale Beach. William turned off the ignition and took the key out. He was about to open the door when he saw someone in the shadows of the front veranda idly sitting on the swing seat there. William couldn’t make out who it was.
“I think we have a visitor.” he said to Catherine with an uncertain tone in his voice. “Strange time to come calling.”
Catherine, becoming a little more alert after her snooze during the drive home, looked in under the veranda. “Mmmmmm…” she said. Not committing to any particular feeling for their late night visitor.
William came round to Catherine’s side of the Humber and opened her door, offering is hand. She stepped out of the car and straightened her gown with a few brushes of her hands on the folds of the skirt. She kissed William briefly, a perfunctory kiss.
“You’d better see who it is.”
William stepped up onto the veranda, still not able to make out who it was that was sitting on the swing. Suddenly the light came on and the front door opened. It was the babysitter, Mrs. Morrow.
“I thought it was you two.” she whispered, “Ssshhh, I’ve only just managed to get Bess off to sleep.” Mrs. Morrow then spied the man on the swing. A look questioning his presence crossed her face. She gestured to Catherine to come in, mistrusting this late night assignation. Catherine, with a look like she should know the man but just couldn’t place him, followed Mrs. Morrow inside leaving William on the veranda.
“Hello Will. Long time no see. I don’t think Catherine recognised me.” He didn’t get up.
“Eric…,” William turned to look for Catherine but she had already gone inside with Mrs. Morrow. “This is an unexpected surprise. I thought you were out of the country.”
“Just got back earlier this evening.” Eric’s tone was unusually serious, so William would be serious too.
“Well hello, Eric. To what do we owe the pleasure of your nocturnal presence. It must be more than five years….”
“Too long between drinks, I’ll grant you; and I wouldn’t normally dream of intervening in Catherine’s and your domestic idyll if it weren’t of the most immediate and urgent importance. There’s nasty work afoot Will and I’m afraid I need the Stafford family, and your very particular talents, to see us through to tomorrow; but first there’s some very difficult and confronting things we have to deal with.” Now he stood up, straight.
“Cup of tea….?” William had been hooked on the mystery of the thing.”
“Something stronger, perhaps…..”
The mystery thickening as William, his hand in the small of Eric’s back, took them both inside.
Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula
06 Possible and Probable (1986 and 2019)
The sun was setting on one of those hot Sydney summer days that seemed to be both a beneficence and a bane. The heat, having awakened areas in the limbic system that tended toward sun worship, prompted many to spend the day lying around lazily soaking up the rays; lizards seeking the primal light. Not so much a sickie as a sunny.
Now that the sun was setting, that day long load of whole body heat had begun suggesting potential but unspecified action. The day was closing and soon night would fall. Friday night; and the humidity was just killing.
Bess had other things on her mind. After getting home from the scene in Glebe she had spent a few hours going through the dead man’s computer, notebooks and photo albums, developing a fairly good profile of him and his life. As she’d sorted through the materials she’d bundled together a few of the photos and printed pages she had singled out from the evidence collected at the terrace on Keegan Avenue. A lot of the files on the Macintosh she’d transferred to a floppy which she stuck between the leaves of the folder containing the photos and print outs.
She’d begun to see some threads running through the materials but she still had no idea how the dead man had known her, and the notes and working files she’d found on the Macintosh had proved that he knew her well, very well indeed. Or at least her profile up until now, the mid eighties.
Logically, the author, being now dead, could not have any possible knowledge of or experience with Bess after today’s date, (leaving aside that fact; the future, having not explicated itself, no-one could really say they knew what would happen, or more accurately what might happen, after today’s date.)
So the narrative of her later life must all have been conjecture, confection, conflation. The Hague sounded fascinating and it also suggested that she was going to get another promotion prior to that secondment; but it all seemed like a fantasy version, a movie of her life.
She was a News South Wales Police Inspector with a PhD in Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology. A senior specialist, she liked her job and was well thought of by the other cops around her. That much was established.
A great deal of the fictional Bess the writer had created was based in fact. She had been involved with the search for the missing boy as set out in the narrative written by the dead man. She had been selected for the Quantum Consciousness Project’ which she had thoroughly enjoyed and, what’s more, she believed that it had had a formative effect on her future; that it had, in fact, put the final polish to her mind before she set out on her career in the Force. But, and this was the first and last, the biggest “but”; Eric Hansen was not a twice dead enigma. He was actually Professor Eric Hansen and it had been Eric that had suggested the Police as a career for Bess.
She recalled sitting with him by the fire in his rooms, drinking tea and eating biscuits, (still an habitual comfort), just quietly talking. It was the winter of 1976. It had been cold and pelting rain all day. The wind was whipping the fig trees as the light drained from the sky outside. Down in the Professor’s rooms the world could be ending for all the effect it would have down there.
The room was warm and they were both a little drowsy. They’d had a stiff whiskey when they’d come in from the weather and they were both now relaxed, open.
Eric had asked Bess what she would be doing now. “Now” in this case being the future.
She’d told him of her fondness for puzzles and how ever since she was a little girl she’d loved working out whatever it was that everyone else was missing. This had led the conversation circuitously, or at least she had thought so at the time, to what she might do that would allow her to enjoy her love of puzzles in the cause of her career. He’d suggested Research Psychologist, Historian, Philologist, Philosopher, (“Yes Virginia, they do still exist.”); “or….,” he had shrugged casually, like this next suggestion wasn’t really to be taken seriously, “Investigator,” the same casual shrug, though this time as he turned to grip his tea cup, “Cop?”
He took a sip from his tea; letting the suggestion hang for a moment. A moment Bess hadn’t even realise had passed at the time. His eyes now closely focussed on Bess, “I could see you eating anything you set your mind to. You really are that good Bess.”
Bess, with her usual self deprecation, had scoffed at the idea. She might have been protesting too much; but a seed had been released, blowing in on a truant breeze, a breath from somewhere distant and definitely different, that found some rough purchase in a crack, a drift of dust.
At the time she’d not really taken any of Eric’s suggestions seriously and Eric didn’t seem committed to pushing any particular barrow for Bess’ future; and anyway, there was still a few months before any choice would need to be considered. Maybe not even then. “I might just take off.”, she had thought.
She had then, subconsciously at first, then merely unconsciously, begun to think of herself as an investigator. A professional solver of puzzles.
The little seed that could. And did. By the time they were all having end of course drinks during the first week of November Bess had made up her mind to take up a recruitment offer from The New South Wales Police Force. She was off to be a copper.
And now, tonight, armed with the photos and printouts and the floppy in her folder, that copper was off to be a student again. To sit, as she had so often in the past, with the man who had been a friend and teacher, her mentor during those early years of her Police career. She wanted to know how the dead man knew so much about her and more importantly, why had he chosen to name the most enigmatic character in his yarn after the Professor. She had a feeling that Eric would know, was maybe involved, could offer some insight, something. Anything.
She stuffed the materials into her backpack and slung it over her shoulder, unlocked the deadbolt on her front door and stepped into the corridor outside her flat. She looked back through the door as she took the key out of the interior lock and pushed it into the exterior slot. She liked her little flat at the top of Harrow Mansions with its views down over William Street through the buildings to Woolloomooloo Bay and the bridge in the distance.
The little flat on Clapton Place, Darlinghurst was home. It had belonged to her Great Great Aunt and came to Bess when that venerable old woman passed on. She’d been 102.
Bess cherished memories of visiting “MrsG”; as the whole family called her. A native of Arbroath, she had married a lowlander called Gilfilian; who, having conferred his patronymic initial, promptly up and died. He’d been a sailor and had only one thing of any consequence to leave his young widow; a flat, in Darlinghurst, in Sydney, all the way out in Australia.
There was nothing for it. Mrs G had packed two small portmanteaux and booked passage, steerage, to Australia; and the rest actually was history.
She was monumental, tectonic, and the deepest of wells. Sitting with her, drinking tea and eating wafer biscuits with chocolate cream, Bess had never felt as excited and full of anticipation. She had told wonderful stories, fantasies full of adventure, and Bess was always the central character in all of Mrs G’s stories. Bess the jet pilot, Bess the Archaeologist, Bess the Secret Agent. She’d loved it all.
Mrs G had filled the flat with art and other interesting things; knick-knacks, objets d’art, and a money box known as “The Penny Nigger”. Bess had loved loading the hand with a penny, (special pennies saved by Mrs G for just this purpose), and watching the “Nigger” pull the coin up to his mouth and swallow it. As a child she had played with the money box endlessly. It still stood on a shelf, now kept clean and shiny like a relic. Bess gave him a wink and said, “Back later. Look after the place for me.” He didn’t reply.
Bess closed and locked the door, turned, and made her way down the four flights to the vestibule. She noticed that there was a buff envelope sticking out from her letterbox. That hadn’t been there when she came in earlier.
She pulled it out, opened and read the single page inside.
Urgent that I see you tonight. We have much to discuss of very great importance.
“No kidding.” Bess thought to herself and just pushed the letter and envelope into the left rear pocket of her trousers and stepped outside. But there it was again. Eric was the strange attractor in this chaos. He had to be a part of this whole phantasm. A central part; but what was he playing at?
She hailed a cab on William Street just near JJJ. It was still very warm and humid. The sky was darkening to a bruised purple, cut through with shafts of golden sunshine. There were thunderheads forming like gathering gunpowder, and the wind was getting up. There was a Southerly Buster coming. Bess jumped in the front seat of the cab and told the driver she wanted the main Quad at Sydney University. As the cab pulled into the evening traffic the first fat drops of rain began to fall and thunder rolled in the sky.
It was absolutely bucketing down and the heavy low clouds were riven with lightning as Bess jumped from the cab and ran, her backpack over her head, into the eastern vestibule of the main quad accompanied by several loud, close, cracking peels of thunder.
The quad was deserted. Term didn’t start for a few weeks and the weather was keeping whoever was on campus indoors. Bess walked down the eastern cloister towards the Philosophy corner recalling lectures in The Oriental Studies Room; Alan Chalmers on The Philosophy of Science, John Burnheim on Demarchy and political alternatives. The early Seventies. It was a time of classic contest between the Marxists of General Philosophy and the Classicists of Traditional and Modern, and it had all came to nothing. Some years later the two sides agreed to disagree, kissed and made up. Marxism never became the better mouse trap and the classical model had been failing for decades. Funny days Bess thought.
As she made her way down the worn sandstone steps to the basement, Bess’ inner voice suddenly began to babble. “To be real, a thing must entail its own transcendence. A things reduction to its falsehoods makes it utilitarian. Hammers aren’t made of porcelain because the proposition, “a porcelain hammer has utility”, is false. Einstein wouldn’t try to drive a nail with a Bow “Flora”.
Bess had gotten used to these recent explosions of nonsense and figured her Auditory Ventral and Dorsal Streams where getting confused, entangled; causing the neurodata received at Broca’s area to generate nonsense; gobbledygook in, gobbledygook out..
The verbiage never really made sense but it somehow hovered just on the edge of meaning. She shook her head. Literally trying to shake the nonsense away. Thankfully she had never experienced these mini fugues when she had been speaking to other people.
Sometimes it manifested as a repeating phrase, such as this morning’s, “Reality is the set of all things we know to be the case; which is a subset of all things that are.” repeated again and again, for a minute or two as she made her tea. Each version having a slightly different pronunciation and word emphasis.
At first Bess had thought that these apparent discontinuities in logical thought and speech production could represent the beginnings of a more serious condition; perhaps a kind of neural compulsive tick; but it was never debilitating in any way and always disappeared should some matter of greater urgency engage her mind.
Perhaps it was a manifestation of Bess’ quietly held belief that there was always more going on than met the eye; that her life was somehow, sometimes, not really her own; that there was a subconscious part of her that lived an entirely different life to the mundane copperly life that Bess experienced day to day. She might mention it to Eric when she saw him. He always had good ideas about the seemingly absurd.
She arrived outside the heavy oak door of Eric’s rooms, dropped her backpack and pushed her dark tangled wet hair back from her forehead with both hands. She knocked quietly; two knocks, pause, third knock. It was their signal.
There was no response at first and Bess surmised that Eric must have his head in something and had not heard, so she knocked again, same pattern, but harder this time.
A voice she didn’t recognise, shouted out, as if from a distance, “Hang on. Be there in a second.”
There was a curious blue glow shining through the worn oversized keyhole. He must have been using an ultraviolet lamp for some reason. The glow dissipated and the door opened.
It was a young man with long wavy dark hair and startling black eyes that seemed to twinkle with gold and green and blue. He was dressed somewhat oddly; very pointy red snake skin boots, electric blue skinny jeans just managing to hold onto the top of his bum, cinched with a broad belt. He was wearing a washed out rock’n’roll T shirt; “The Magnetics”; with a colourful image of an old steam train with a human face wearing glasses chuffing out from the front of the shirt; “Death From Above” emblazoned across the trains bumper. The arms of the T shirt had been hacked off with scissors. Altogether his outfit seemed more suited to a rock guitarist than some serious minded student. Bess felt a little older, a little further out of the main stream.
He looked a little stunned, speechless, but he had a huge smile and Bess got the distinct notion that she knew this young man, or had, at least, seen him somewhere before; in a context that made the current half formed recollection important. He must have been in his twenties, thirty tops. Perhaps he wasn’t a guitarist at all, but rather one of the current crop of QC candidates.
“Bess! Bess, Bess. Come in, come in. We’ve been expecting you.” He bowed and graciously swung his thin arm low indicating that she was more than welcome.
“I was hoping to catch up with Eric. He sent me a note earlier today.” Bess stepped in past the theatricality of the young man.
As she turned back to him he was gazing intently on Bess, his smile relaxing a little and then reasserting itself as he took in quick observations of his guest.
“I’m to tell you that he just stepped out and will be back shortly.” He quickly closed the gap between them and offered his hand.
“I’m Philipe Apfelbaum, but my fiends call me Pip. You must call me Pip. I think we’re going to be famous friends.”
Bess smiled wryly. He was a good looking guy. “Such presumption, Pip Apfelbaum; and both Alpha and Omega. Are youthe beginning and the end of all this?
Pip looked worried for a moment, as though he didn’t get the question. “I’m sorry, I don’t…..” He didn’t want to seem a dunce at their first meeting.
“Pip, or “seed”. Apfelbaum is German for “appletree”; so beginning and end…..? Granted it wasn’t a very good joke; and as a play on words, its hard work, particularly after having it explained. Sorry Pip, its the pedant in me. Eric and I used to play word games all the time. It must be being back here.
“Sorry, I don’t speak German. My parents were post war immigrants. I grew up here. I mean, I knew Apfelbaum of course, but …” He seemed genuinely sorry for his lack of language skills. Another odd thing, Bess thought. But then things were always odd for Bess. Odd was the default setting on her life.
She looked more closely at the young man. If his parents were post war immigrants he should have been older, or so it occurred to Bess. He was spectacularly pale, almost white; making all his features; his eyes, lips, his ears; seem too full of colour. He was also spectacularly thin making his limbs seem too long. Yet he was graceful, not at all gangly. And he was very pretty, Bess thought.
05 Slipping Away (2019)
Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula
Bess stepped through the front door of the decaying house. There was dust everywhere, over everything. It had collected in drifts in all the corners and lay thickly on the floor; but there was no sign of footprints, no indication at all that any other person had been here for quite some time.
The cornices; where what was left of the rusting pressed metal ceiling met the walls, were heavily cobwebbed. There were two rooms off the short hall at the front of the house. Bess shone the torch into the one on her right.
There was an old iron bedstead with a rotting striped kapok mattress and equally rotten bedding. There was a dressing table, its timbers split and the mirror foxed to the point that only a small area in the middle reflected back the torch beam; and a wardrobe, door fallen off, with some clothing decayed to a few shreds, still managing to hang from the wooden hangers. There was a washstand with a bowl and a cracked jug. There were no shoes or boots to be seen, which Bess thought a little odd. Hansen had been wearing shoes when he was found, but surely a farmer would have at least one pair of good strong boots.
She shone the torch into the other room. It was full of junk. Old implements, tools, furniture, boxes of old newspapers and magazines. Maybe Hansen had been a hoarder.
Bess moved through to the living room. More dilapidated furniture set the scene though Bess thought the overstuffed lounge and chairs had a rather homey feel; under the dust and decay. She shone her torch slowly around the room, starting down near the skirting and slowly moving up and around the walls. There was nothing that stood out as interesting, out of the ordinary.
As she continued to interrogate the room she saw a warped dust covered book sitting on a nest of three tables by one of the armchairs. She moved over to the chair, gave it a quick closer look and determined that, rotten and falling apart or not, it looked like you could sit in it without it collapsing, or disturbing anything that might later be important, and so she sat down. Standing her torch on its tail so that the beam, reflected off the ceiling, provided a low level of general illumination throughout the room; she dropped the Landcruiser keys and her phone on the table and picked up the book.
It was a badly decayed, moth and mouse eaten edition of Joseph Conrad’s short stories titled “Twixt Land and Sea.”, the remains of a silken book mark lodged a few pages into what was left of a story called “The Secret Sharer.”
Bess had read a few of Conrad’s novels and short stories; Heart of Darkness went without saying, but also The Rover, The Nigger of The Narcissus, and of course Nostromo and Lord Jim. She’d read a biography by a fellow called Gerkin; no that wasn’t right; Gurko, that was it.
The general thrust of that literary life-story was that Conrad’s works were nothing less than a prescient look into the near future. It had made much of the modernist psychology of his characters and their many and various responses to the situations Conrad faced them with. Bess remembered seeing a television program on much the same theme. It had centred on Conrad’s novel “The Secret Agent”, and made the claim that this work was indeed “the first truly modern novel”. Bess couldn’t remember anything else about the show or any of its other conclusions. She’d mentally added the novel to the long list of other works she’d get round to after retirement.
“Twixt Land and Sea”, It was an odd collection so far from that sea and the foam, and a following wind. Out of place, and out of time too, Bess thought.
She flipped back to look at the publishing information. The flipping of the pages, some fragmenting and falling apart as they flipped, produced a cloud of paper and other dust.
Bess dropped the book back onto the table trying to hold onto a giant sneeze gathering in the front of her face. It found her nose and she sneezed convulsively, three times. Her eyes teared up from the irritation of the dust and she dragged a little plastic envelope of tissues from one of her cargo pockets, wiped her eyes and blew her nose loudly, taking momentary satisfaction from the reverberant nasal raspberry in the quiet, hot house.
She took the book up again. It had been published in 1912. This was a first edition, but literary mavens wouldn’t be squabbling over this decaying treasure. There wasn’t enough of any of the pages to be able to properly read the book, but she turned back to the marked story, found its beginning and began to read from the first fully visible line of print.
“…. as if abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach.”
The lines seemed strikingly apposite as Bess looked round the room, there being no sign of human habitation here either. Was the book an indication of Eric Hansen’s psyche, did it illuminate some heretofore unseen part of his character. She read on for a brief while before getting bored with interpolating the missing text. Putting the warped and decayed book down she thought she’d find a copy on the net. Gutenberg would have one.
Bess picked up her phone. There was one bar visible in the phone display, but it disappeared as she looked at it.
“Bugger, no 4G coverage..” She should have known. This was the back of Bourke. The NBN had a fancy ground station just out of Bourke and Bess had enjoyed fast download speeds in town, but out here she couldn’t even get a stable connection. It didn’t matter. She was feeling too restless and fidgety to read anyway. She looked at her watch; 10:37 and the seconds tick tocking toward midnight in the small LCD display.
As Bess tried to relax in the dusty chair her mind wandered back to Conrad.
The Pole had written in English, showing a command of the language absent from writers whose first language it was. Though he had never really mastered spoken English and kept a thick accent till his dying day. He was an orphan, an outsider, alien and alienated, even amongst those he considered his friends.
He had been a lifelong witness of the human condition, his conjectures and conclusions on that almost infinite subject being the meat and potatoes of his writing. Bess had always believed that Conrad’s real subject was himself; a perhaps unconscious lifelong quest to reconcile his origins, his life and his work with what seemed a difficult and demanding day to day existence.
Bess acknowledged the similarities between her own and Conrad’s circumstances.
She too was an orphan, also taken in by older and somewhat distant relatives. They’d been good to her, loved her in their way. They were generous and provided everything she could possibly need, particularly in the area of education, but she couldn’t say that she had ever fully loved them back.
It wasn’t their fault. It was as if that capacity for loving one’s family had somehow been truncated in her, or perhaps broken by the circumstances of her parent’s death. Or maybe she had put it by, against the day when her parents might return; a childish dream she had clung onto for many years after their loss; and how she might show how true to them she had stayed, how much she loved them still; for Bess had always harboured a niggling doubt about how well she had shown her parents the deep love she held for them.
Her memories of her parents and grandparents were now a precious collection of carefully curated memories; memento mori, a life long whispered warning of the transience of existence, the chaos of life and the limits on action in the real world.
There hadn’t been a funeral, there being no bodies to ritually burn or bury, only a long memorial service attended by a lot of people she didn’t know talking about her parents in a way that made them seem strangers to her. She did remember clinging to Nana throughout the service, but she didn’t cry.
Her Nana had thought that odd as she looked at the serious, intensely intelligent little girl, assuming that the whole thing must have been overwhelming to the nine year old. But Bess had begun to watch, to see what was beneath the obvious and everyday, finding refuge and release in seeing through to the patterns of things, how the world jostled and bumped, erupted and collapsed, gave and took away, just as with her parents.
They’d died suddenly in a fiery car crash when the vehicle they were returning home to Bess in had failed to take a corner, left the road, becoming airborne out over a deep defile before crashing head on into the opposite side, tumbling to the bottom of the ravine and bursting into flames. The intensity of that fire had reduced everything organic in the vehicle to undifferentiated ash, and leaving Bess, an only child, with no parents and no bodies to bury and grieve over.
The events of those days had never really sunk into Bess’ consciousness. They seemed to blur together as though she’d had only half an eye on the mundane while her mind tried for solace in abstractions and speculations about her parents missing bodies and a possible future return.
She remembered clearly the look on her maternal grandfather’s face when she had run to the door thinking the bell would be her parents. One look had told her all she needed to know. She was now alone, and it would always be that way.
She half remembered fleeting images of the packing and readying for the move to Nana and Papa’s house. They were gone now too.
They’d been a bit reluctant to allow Bess’ little blue Staffordshire bitch Eleanor to make the move with her. They weren’t dog people, but when it seemed that Bess’ little companion was the only thing holding her to the ground, they relented and Eleanor and Bess became inseparable in the ensuing years. Even Nana and Papa had come to love the little dog and one of Bess’ fondest memories was a just a picture in her mind of her Papa with Elli’s head in his lap while he read a book, one hand absently stroking Elli’s neck while she snored.
The memories were rolling in, swamping Bess as she sat in the derelict chair; her Dad teaching her to swim at the local baths, his huge smile and his arms stretched out to pull her up from the water; school speech nights with her Mum sitting proudly in the front row, winking at her as she received the prize for arithmetic; family gatherings; hockey matches with papa barracking from the side lines; learning to fall in Judo class with her instructor Mr. Baldock; her attempts to realise in paint the shapes and puzzles of her life; fire and change always central elements; friends from school and her adult life and their seemingly endless capacity to find meaning and fulfilment in their relationships with her, and she with them. But since the accident, always that sense of being alone. Not lonely, but always, alone.
She sniffed and realised she had been crying. Only a little and not for any sense of loss or hardship suffered, but because it was all so human, so ineluctably beautiful and sad all at the same time. It had made her who and what she was.
Bess pulled out the tissues again and wiped her eyes and blew her nose. “This is no way for me to meet my own secret sharer.” she thought, with not a little self deprecation,
Eric Hansen’s face appeared suddenly in Bess’ mind’s eye. The vision startling her with its clarity and intensity, and again, just as it had seemed down at the dock, there was that look of anticipation and just a soupçon of trepidation. Bess shivered as if hit by a blast of cold air, though the temperature in the house was probably still in the thirties.
She looked at her watch again. It was almost midnight. She’d lost over an hour in her revery.
But the complex of emotions that had accompanied that revery disintegrated as she realised there was something moving about in the kitchen, a soft rattling noise amongst the crockery, the sound of small things dislodged, falling…, her hand went to her gun, but she had come unarmed. She sat forward, prepared; but for what?
“Bess are you there?” a deep kindly voice.
Bess heart nearly jumped out of her shirt, and she saw a pale ultraviolet glow, just managing to mix with and then over power the dim light of the torch. It was emanating through the kitchen doorway.
Bess stood up in a rush and immediately went to the doorway and stepped through into the source of that light. She took two steps into the kitchen and stopped still, rooted to the spot.
What she saw next was both all too real and at once impossible.
There was a line. Or sort of line, she couldn’t be sure, that ran across the floor, up the walls, across the ceiling and down the other wall to join up with itself, taking in everything in the room. The line was like the outline of a geometric plane intersecting with the reality of the room. It glowed across the floor, outlining the furniture, moving slowly across the space.
Everything on Bess’ side of the advancing line was as she had seen it when first she had entered the kitchen, but on the other side of that ultraviolet line everything was different.
The kitchen was dissolving as if someone were working the kitchen in photoshop, decreasing it’s opacity. Emerging through that declining reality was the same kitchen, but now made new, or as new as it might once have been many years ago.
Walking through that new kitchen but somehow not yet quite part of the scene, as if dissolving in from an even more distant place, was Hansen, smiling and holding her in his gaze.
“I’ll be with you in just a moment” Hansen said. His words, though somewhat confused by phasing and flanging effects, were unusually reassuring to Bess, but not quite believable as she watched him growing in size, his feet finally contacting the floor and himself becoming fully immersed in the new kitchen.
The line passed through Bess with an electric tingle she barely noticed, so astounded was she by what she was seeing.
At last Hansen was there, standing on the other side of the fresh clean formica topped table. The refreshed chairs, their aluminium armatures gleaming and their vinyl covers gayly coloured, matching the renewal of the dresser with its smooth shiny varnish and leaded craquelure glass, the now matching plates neatly stacked, the glasses gleaming.
The man shook his head slowly, his face crumpling a little as he dropped his head slightly to the side. “Its so good to see you again. Let me look at you.” and he did, shaking his head again as if amazed too by what hewas seeing.
Bess finally found her voice. “Hansen…., Eric Hansen, Professor Eric Hansen?”
“Hello Bess. Its been a long time”
“More than twenty years.” Bess smiled broadly at this apparition of her friend and former mentor, but she was more than a little confused by all that was happening. “I couldn’t understand how your name kept cropping up. I thought it must have been another Hansen; just a coincidence; the pictures didn’t look a bit like you, and I didn’t know what was going to happen here. I certainly didn’t expect you in the flesh. You are flesh, aren’t you?”
He smiled at her sweetly and Bess was shot back to her days at University and her year on the Quantum Consciousness course. His kindly voice and his smile immediately familiar again. Bess understood, though she couldn’t have known how, that Eric, if Eric this was, this “science fiction Hansen” with Hansen’s face, Hansen’s tall stature and penetrating, kind eyes, was no threat, that he was here to help her through whatever this was going to be, as he had always helped her in the past.
Bess eyes pricked with tears. She almost cried again, she was so happy to see Eric once more.
“Yes I’m flesh, including the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And I should apologise for interfering in your case. I did put a tinsy winsy block on the prepared materials. Just so you wouldn’t think the two other Hansens were me.”
“I should have known.” Bess said testily, “The stochastics didn’t stack up. Too improbable and too obvious at the same time.”
“Forget it. You couldn’t have made the connection while the block was in. That was the point.”
“I’m not really getting all this. Do I understand by that, that you can interfere with my consciousness “at a distance?”
“Entanglement working in the real world; but it was the first time, I’ve never interfered in your consciousness before. And now I’ve done it once and told you, I won’t ever be able to do it again. You’ve just become a little more than you were when you stepped through the front door.”
Suddenly there was a tumble in Bess’ mind; a chaotic, unjumbling tumble, a reorganisation of disparate, seemingly unrelated “stuff”, but now related, and leading to just one question.
“Is this about Mum and Dad?”
The excited question, uttered before she had even thought about asking anything, had come from deep inside her psyche. From that place where the little girl Bess had been bore the pain of her parents loss every day of her life.
“There you go again! That’s the Bess of old. Those intuitive leaps, the integration and synthesis of seemingly unconnected things. You really are the business Bess. Amazing!” Eric shook his head and smiled happily.
“Yes, we’ll be with them shortly, but first we’ve got to get you ready. Please sit.” he indicated the chair on Bess’ side of the table and smiled. Bess sat automatically, still trying to take in the fact that the Eric had said she would soon be with her parents.
A grim vision of flames and mangled metal tore through Bess mind, but she knew it wasn’t that. Her parents had somehow survived!
The little girl she had been, hanging on to an impossible hope, was to be completely vindicated, that forlorn hope rewarded at last. It was curious to realise this late in her life, in that very moment, that it had been that unconscious hope that had always sustained Bess through all the years of her singular adult life.
Her rational adult had always known that she would never see them again, they were dead; and yet the little girl equally knew that it was inevitable that they would be rejoined.
The continual resolution of that dynamic tension was no small part of the drive that had put Bess at the centre of some of the most complex and convoluted cases in the annals of NSW policing; that had led to her being chosen for The Hague and her other overseas secondments; why it was that when the body in the morgue disappeared, it was Bess that was recommended for the job, even though assigning a Super to that job looked like overkill. Or at least she had thought so prior to tonight’s sojourn here in the old “Hansen” house out the back of Bourke.
The racing, jumbled and tumbling emotions, recollections and ideas in Bess’ mind suddenly snapped to a new question.
“Wait!” Bess then paused, collecting her thoughts.
Hansen was getting a few things from his pockets; a small hinged tin and a Zippo. He put them on the table and gave Bess his complete attention.
“You said it was good to see me again. Its been more than twenty years. Just before I was off to The Hague. How can you have known that I’d be here tonight to see? And that entrance…Wow! That’s some party trick. I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore. You wouldn’t care to fill me in on that would you, Wizard Hansen?
“Pretty neat, I agree; but surprisingly simple once you get the knack of it; However, that’s not what this is all about.”
Eric Hansen smiled as if he’d expected all this. “Its always like this at first, but you will see, you will understand what’s going on, why you’re here and your part in all this.”
“What do you mean “at first”, and what’s this place got to do with me?”
“This place is an accident of cosmological topology and ontology. This is where the discordance generates according to an irregular but generally reliable timetable. The first people to recognise its existence were the local aboriginal peoples. This was a powerful place for them, a place of visions.” Hansen paused to let that sink in, then went on.
“The trick isn’t in this place, this is just the location of an exploitable resource, like gravity or electromagnetism. As for, “at first”, this is your first iteration. You’re plainly not up to speed with who and what you are, what you can do. Before this is over you and I are going to meet like this, the weird science kind of meeting, four times.”
“No the trick isn’t in this place. It’s getting you here on the fifteenth of February. That’s what all the unexplained dead bodies, disappearing footsteps and the other nonsense was about. The only real piece of information in the whole confection was the Geohash and the date. We knew that you’d work through the evidence, that you’d find it impossible to resolve, because it wasn’t designed to be resolved. You didn’t fail in that. In fact you succeeded. You would have to be here because “here, now” is the only auditable piece of evidence you had. Hansen paused, looking for the impact all this was having on Bess.
“But you are the body in the library, and old Eric Hansen. Biometrics confirmed that. Are you saying that you set that up just to ensnare me in the investigation?”
“That’s precisely what I’m saying and I’ve managed to pull the trick off a few times so far.” There was no pride in Hansen’s voice. He seemed more apologetic that he had been forced to deceive Bess with these false ensnaring clues. Hansen’s tone and kinesics suggested an almost ineffable quality of caring and focus on Bess, like a favourite uncle dealing with a distressed child. Which was exactly what Bess was feeling, Perhaps not distressed but certainly confused.
“You’ll forgive me if I take a moment to let all this fit together.”
“That’s what you do best, fit things together. Take all the time you want. We’ve got until about 5:30 before we have to leave.”
“High energy photonic density collapses the discordance. The door shuts.”
Bess pursed her lips and gave Hansen a look.
“You mean sunrise.” Bess said. “Please assume I know nothing about physics or cosmology, which I don’t really. It might be better if you treated me like a child. I don’t need to hear how or why things happen, just what will happen.”
This was becoming a bit overwhelming for Bess. What had been a simple if somewhat perverse investigation full of impossible imponderables had now reached the point where those imponderables had been explained away to nothing, and now, apparently, her entire existence was in play and she still had no clue just what it was that Eric was actually here for. She couldn’t even really be sure that this was Eric. She hadn’t seen him for over two decades and yet he somehow managed to look not only youthful, but younger than he had the last time she had seen him.
Putting that queer observation aside; the earlier promise of meeting her parents again had established and maintained a tremor, a trembling in Bess that she found both unsettling and almost impossibly exciting, but she still couldn’t work out what the point of it all was.
Hansen might have been reading her mind.
“You’re the point of it all. Everything, all of this is for you, about you. You see Bess,” there was that intimate, caring voice again, “just as I am not really the Hansen you thought you knew, you’re not really the Bess Stafford you think you are.”
“You are so much more and so very precious, and all of this has been about protecting you; that’s my job; and providing a place and time where you can become the best Bess you can be. You are about to discover the real you, whatever you think that may mean in this context. There’s no doubt about that, more real than I’ll ever be, or perhaps that should be “more realised”, and a time will come when all that you become will be able to return to the place where you were…,” Hansen paused, made a dismissive flicking gesture with his hands, “….born”, if that word even remotely describes the way you came into being.”
“So the whole QC course was what? Just another snare?”
“Oh no; the course is a genuine recruitment strategy. You won your place there just like the others. Only they didn’t turn out to be quite as spectacular as you. No the QC course is how we discover the ZPF individuals.”
“Zero Point Field. You’re a ZPF baby. We’ve managed to identify about thirty others like you since the course was instituted but none of them have what you have. The ZPF babies all carry at least one significant mutation that confers on them what might be called; by those that don’t enjoy these genetic upgrades; special abilities; super powers if you like. But we’ll get to that later when we’ve got a chance to relax and catch up.”
Relax and catch up; it sounded so simple and prosaic, like dropping round for a cup of tea and a biscuit; but the Zero Point Field? Bess only had a vague idea what that was. Something to do with quantum mechanics. Just what it might have to do with her would have to be added to the lengthening list of questions for later. That she would have to wait to be inducted into these mysteries also implied that there was something doing before that. Something big?
“So I have these “super powers” do I?”
“Super, superer, superest; you are Superintendent Bess Superest!” Hansen smiled at his wordplay. “The thing is Bess, you weren’t meant to know until next time; Iteration Two, your next…., life(?); but something unexpected has come up and we’ve had to swing into action. We’re not completely sure of the course of action but its clear that some course is going to have to be taken and you will be at the very centre of that action.”
This was now descending into bad science fiction and Bess thought to get things back to what she could understand, what was actually going on here.
Hansenwasreading her mind.
“Let me ask you a few questions Bess. I think your own answers may enlighten you.” Hansen looked at Bess waiting on her permission.
“OK”, though Bess was now becoming a little impatient. Hansen had provided a great deal of “intelligence” since his materialisation in the kitchen but hardly any of it could be manipulated into a coherent whole. She twitched on the chair and shuffled her feet.
“How many languages do you speak Bess? Ever counted them?”
Oh, I don’t know. Eight, maybe ten. I’ve never really needed to do an inventory.
‘That’s a lot of languages for an ordinary copper, don’t you think? But, would it surprise you that since you finished with university you have not just learnt but mastered twenty six languages. You speak twenty six languages just like a native born and raised in those tongues. How do you think you’ve achieved that?”
“Have you ever had a language lesson in Greek, for example; yet you speak Greek like a native Athenian, and not just a native now, you also speak Koine Greek. Pericles would be able to understand you.”
How did Hansen know that. Bess hadn’t needed to speak Greek for years, decades; before she had even met Eric.
“I had Greek neighbours in Glebe when I was at uni. The wife used to make me baclava and the husband kept a nanny-goat in his little back yard. He used to walk her like a dog. She was a hit with the kids from the local primary school up the road. They were always dropping round to feed her treats like apple and carrots.”
“He and his wife didn’t speak much English, but they were so sweet to me and I used to drop in most days after lectures. I guess I just learnt from them.”
“Yes, but how Bess? By osmosis?”
Hansen let that hang there between them as Bess began to wonder about her languages. Hansen pressed on.
“You play chess don’t you?”
“Yes. I suppose I used to play more often than I do these days; but yes, I play chess.”
“Can you remember ever losing a game?”
“How can I possibly be expected to remember every game of chess I’ve ever played?”
“Your chess game reflects the ability of your opponent, but you’ve never lost a game, not once since you were a child and your mother taught you to play; and if you played Garry Kasparov you’d beat him too. Its what you do, and as for remembering; you could remember every detail of every moment of your life if you put your mind to it. That’s also one of your abilities.”
The situation had now become completely unanchored from reality, at least any reality Bess had ever known. If it had been anyone else other than Hansen she’d have called “crap” and put an end to this. But then, maybe not. That entrance still had her completely bamboozled and she was now beginning to feel a little fearful. It wasn’t every day that you met an apparition of your old Uni mentor claiming to be some kind of godfather figure, not to mention a continuing intimate acquaintance of your dead parents with knowledge of your own true nature.
“And your smile Bess; have you ever wondered just why it is that people seem unable to look away, and why do you think that in all those interrogations of the good, the bad and the ugly, people seem to experience a kind of psychic meltdown when they try to lie to you? Remember the Serbian, Stankic? Ever wondered about that?”
Bess had to admit to herself that she hadn’t wondered about Stankic’ confession. It had been a harrowing enough experience just to get it from him. It had left Bess feeling sullied and somehow violated, not unlike Stankic’ victims.
Having extracted the confession, she had left it to others to tidy the transcript and shepherd it through the court process. Her court appearance as the Interviewing Officer had been read mostly from her personal notes. She’d had no stomach for actually remembering Stankic’ crimes as she had imagined them during the interrogation.
It did seem strange, now that she put her mind to it, but it had always been that way for her, right from the very beginning. As a small girl her parents had always praised her smile, saying it always made people happy.
She had consciously learned to deploy that smile to encourage the people around her to treat her with respect, to take her seriously, to like her. In all those years it had never once occurred to her that there might be something metaphysical about her smile.
It was absurd, but given what was happening here tonight Bess decided that she would have to take it all at face value. It wasn’t going to fit any pattern from her previous experience but she did believe that there must be a coherent pattern to all this. She just had to discern it. As Hansen had said, it was what she did.
Bess slumped a little in the kitchen chair. “Just tell me who and what I am, preferably in terms I can understand.” Bess smiled at Hansen.
“See, you’re doing it now!”
“I am aren’t I?” Bess said with a quiet uncertain awe in her voice.
When she’d smiled at Hansen she had glimpsed into him, seen his nature. She had seen the shapes and patterns of the man’s mind, had seen that he was a kind of construct, made up of parts, many, many parts; and all those parts served one purpose. That sole purpose was to look out for and look after Bess. She saw that Hansen’s reason for being was herself; but perhaps more interestingly, she had seen herself, again and again in situations she had no memory of. How could Hansen have memories of Bess she didn’t have herself?
“Are we some species of fallen angel?” It wasn’t a serious question, Bess had never really cottoned on to religion; but Hansen certainly wasn’t human in any currently acceptable interpretation of the word; and being able to spontaneously read the internal structure of a person’s personality, to see their character laid out as if schematised, to feel their emotions, see into their memory; well that was something else again.
“No we’re no angels. Certainly not. We aren’t that different from everyone else on the planet. We’re just a bit more…., what is it the kids say these days? We’re just a bit more “woke” than most.”
“No, you’re human and I’m human just like you, with all that entails. I have my quirks and oddnesses, my compulsions and addictions, my structural failings and personal faults, flaws and phobias, just like you. But just like you I can choose to rise above those flaws, I have my better angels to follow. I have free agency here in the material world.
I could, for instance, decide that I no longer wanted my association with you and your….,” that pause again, “….family.” Hansen looked at Bess, his face conveying the absurdity of any such decision on his part. “But I know that’s not who I am. I am as you see me. Thisis what Ido.”