Copyright © Ceres Wunderkind 2011. All rights reserved.
Alison lay sleepless while Tom snored gently by her side. Their suburban flat was besieged by sodium light, even at two in the morning, but its insidious rays could not break through into the bedroom. Tom was a light sleeper and they had fitted blackout curtains when they moved in.
She put her hand out to the edge of the bed, searching for comforting softness and fur, but found nothing. There was nothing there but cotton and the crackle of duck feathers rattling inside the duvet. Disturbed, Tom shifted and muttered in his sleep. He was at war with his rebellious dreams. They were upstart traitors and needed to be ruthlessly suppressed.
She was alone and unobserved.
Look at her
It was the first day of the new school year and Alison was standing in front of her friend Méabh's GCSE history class. If she had followed her father's wishes she would have become a schoolteacher too, but she was never one to do as she was told; not directly. She'd been a rebel ever since secondary school and the day-to-day routine and repetition of teaching were not for her. All the same, she didn't mind doing a favour to a friend from her undergraduate days, so she'd showed up in support of Méabh, who had taken a teaching post in a market town in south-east England.
The class was made up of the sons and daughters of software developers, office administrators and small businessmen and their teenage rebellion ended at heavy metal, uniform black clothing, vodka and a little weed at the weekends.
'Good morning,' she said to them and each replied more or less enthusiastically.
'My name is Doctor Alison Leslie and Miss Hawkins has asked me to come in today and talk to you about history.' She typed her name on the projector. 'Are all of you in the right place? Nobody here who should be in Contemporary Studies or Woodwork?'
There were muffled giggles, but nobody got up and left.
'Good. So you all want to be historians, do you?'
General muttering and nodding.
'Excellent.' Of course she didn't believe them. 'I'm glad you've chosen to study my favourite subject.'
The class smiled politely.
'I'm a social historian working in the History Faculty at Oxford University and I specialise in the Tudor period. That's Henry the Eighth and his wives, Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada, Christopher Marlowe murdered in Deptford; all that stuff. It's a fascinating time, full of court intrigue, brilliant poetry and sudden death. You've seen the TV series?'
The class nodded. Some of them grinned knowingly.
Alison grinned too, but for a different reason. You think you invented sex? Henry Tudor could show you lot a thing or two. Where do you think you came from, anyway? Under a gooseberry bush?
'It's not terribly accurate historically...' More grins. 'But it's mostly true.'
She smiled. 'And that's what I want to talk about. Truth.
'It's a rare commodity, truth is. It's even rarer when it's buried beneath layers of time, whatever Francis Bacon may have said. My colleagues who work on the Anglo-Saxons think I've got it easy, and I envy the Twentieth Century scholars who've got newspapers, films and records – I mean government records as well as sound recordings – to work with. But having more material doesn't necessarily make life easier, and having less doesn't have to make it harder. What matters is the story, and what matters about the story is that it should be true. Mostly true doesn't hack it. Sort of all right isn't there. History's like forensic science. It's CSI. You've got to examine and test every piece of evidence you have. You get it wrong, you fail to spot the signs, you get your preconceptions mixed up with the facts and the wrong people go down. That's injustice, and I don't do injustice.
'So before you start on,' she picked up a textbook and flipped it to a random page, 'the Great Depression and the causes of the Second World War, I want to tell you something a wise man once told me. Don't worry, it won't take long.
'It was when I was about your age. I was coming up to my exams and, being honest with you, I wasn't paying much attention. I was into music and football, not school work. In fact, I was doing so badly that my mum and dad – and I'll tell you right now, we didn't have very much money so don't go thinking we were posh – decided to send me to a private tutor to get my grades up.
'He was a kindly old man – much kinder than I am – and when I messed him about by handing in rubbish work – lazy, stupid work – he didn't get angry with me. Instead he told me something important about stories and truth and lies. He showed me how much the truth matters. He taught me integrity. He did it by convincing me that an untrue story was true, and then showing me how bad that was, how polluting, how dirty. He was having a laugh at my expense, actually, winding me up, but at the same time he was being deadly serious.'
He's gone now, I'm afraid remains unsaid.
Alison leaned forward and slowly, fiercely, looked around the room. 'He was the best teacher I ever had and he's the reason I'm an historian now.'
The children sat in silence, temporarily transfixed. This kind of passion – it was rare in their classroom. The pattering of thumbs on phone keypads slowed to an occasional click.
'And all I basically want to say is this: So far as the curriculum allows…' she mock-bowed to Méabh, who curtseyed ceremoniously back, 'Miss Hawkins will try to give you a bit more than is printed in this book and she'll mark you up if you give her a bit more back in your work. But only if it's true.' She looked at each student individually. 'Only if it's real.'
'Good day, love?'
That was Tom. He was what was called a "partner"; "boyfriend" sounding too cute and teenage, "lover" too much like something out of a Mills and Boon romance, and "husband" being simply untrue. Tom was tall and good-looking and he had wavy dark hair, a fifteen year old Golf GTI and a liking for 80s electropop. Between them Alison and he earned enough money to pay the rent on a snug flat not far from the ring road and so their partnership was as much a matter of financial convenience as it was of love, as such partnerships have ever been down the ages.
All the same, they had a sincere affection for each other; they enjoyed one another's company, their friends were mostly compatible, they enjoyed a mutually satisfactory sex life and neither had yet become bored with the other. What more could they ask? There were many who had much less than this pair of young professionals. Many slept out, or had yet to leave their parents' house, and a steady income was rare in that age of short-term employment contracts, flexible working and outsourcing.
Tom looked at Alison. He wasn't sure he understood her very well. In fact, he doubted he'd got the slightest idea of what she was about and sometimes, seeing her face on the pillow in the morning, he looked at her and didn't recognise her.
'Yes, thanks.' He grinned. 'Apart from Brian and his twitchy knee and Jaffa Jane – you remember her – and her orange face and this end of week deadline and…' He shrugged. 'You know. What about the brats?'
'Oh, not bad. The usual bunch of new starters.'
'Did you give them your Inspiring Talk? Are they all fired up about Beauty and Truth? Do they love you very, very much?'
'Bastard!' Alison grabbed a cushion from the sofa and threw it at Tom. He ducked, they laughed, and Tom joined her on the sofa and they kissed and cuddled and made themselves comfortable together. Later they cooked lasagne and helped it down with a bottle of supermarket red.
You're such a lucky girl, her friends all told her.
Reveal the shape of the world
Sources matter in history. Primary sources matter the most and carry the most weight, naturally. They are the eye-witness front-line record of the world's deeds. They are its story.
The people who tell the world's story are... everybody. Anyone who tells a story is holding up a holographic fragment of the story of the universe. It may only show one tiny part of the whole of creation, but the whole is a part of it and colours and shapes it in ways that the teller may never know. The world shapes us all.
A writer of fiction, a writer of fact. Does one tell lies and the other the truth? Not necessarily. Both are illuminators of the universe, whether they be biographers, novelists, short story writers, editors, journalists, technical writers or historians. There is a substantial overlap between history and journalism and the man who saw the trial and execution of King Charles I and wrote down what he saw (and, just as important, his reactions to it) and the embedded reporter in Helmand Province with his satellite phone and his HD camera have more in common than either realises.
Tell them stories. Tell them the story. Tell them any story you like. Just make sure that it's true.
And, by another night
Alison was sitting upright and wakeful in front of shift-workers' television when he appeared, golden-haloed and grave.
'Come with me,' he said and Alison took his outstretched hand and let him pull her up from her insomniac settee.
'Shall I...?' She tilted her head to the brown-shadowed corner of the sofa.
'If he will come with you, bring him. If not, don't worry. He will be there when you call for him. You need not fear the pangs of separation.'
He led, she followed. They passed through interior door and street door and standing by the porch she glanced though the living room window, not sure of what she saw there.
'Please come.' It was a command, not a request.
What would be the consequences of disobedience? That was a test she would not make, not yet. Instead she linked hands with him and they walked side by side down stone city streets. Neon and mercury lit their way while a waxing moon hovered overhead, diffracting starlight onto their shadowed passage. The occasional car droned by, an early milk float rattled and chinked across an end-street junction. They traversed the city by subway and overpass, deck access and moving staircase – railways, canals, rivers and red routes intersected their path, marking the crosshatch of the planners' grid. From time to time the half-moon was eclipsed by kerosene wings, whose navigation lights confused the satellites of the wider cosmos, whose roar masked the whispers and rumbles of the night. Below, he and she made no sounds. They did not speak and even their breathing fell sotto voce onto the air, sliding secretively into space as if spoken surreptitiously from the side of the mouth. Their footsteps were crepe-soled silent. They kissed the pavement as a man kisses his wife upon leaving for work; sure of his return, casual and thoughtless, his ardour diluted by long routine.
A sodium blur, and they were gone; unseen by camera or late-patrolling police car. The city drifted past them as they floated though it. There was no contact, no merging of its life with theirs, and while it guided them in their journey down shuttered street and through cloistered arcade it imposed no rules on them. It was their choice to follow the routes the city delineated, only theirs, and if they were suddenly to veer down a forbidden alleyway into a private courtyard there would have been nothing to be done about it. They observed the laws of pavement, walkway and no-entry sign out of simple courtesy and common custom rather than through compulsion or fear of consequences. It was a night-time liberation (but she had also tasted freedom under the open sky of noon.)
He seemed to know the way, this man, but to Alison the path he traced was formless, without waypoints or fixed lines of direction. She tried in vain to identify familiar places, although she had lived in that town for most of her life and had a mental map of memorable nodes, forks, routes and connections that she relied upon to navigate its complexities. For a diversion from the single-mindedness of their exploration (for they did not speak and he led her by hand-pressure alone) she pretended that she was being conned by a trickster taxi-driver who was doubling his fare by looping around blocks and junctions, and that she was trying to catch him out so she could report him to the Hackney Carriage Office and have his badge taken away. It was an engaging game but fruitless, and she soon gave it up and concentrated instead on tracing their progress by dead reckoning. She was confounded here also – the moon slid around the sky; now behind her right shoulder, now floating over her left, now directly in front of her, but neither giving her proof absolute that she was being led in circles nor a step by step assurance of their destination.
There were clocks on Victorian Gothic towers, but they had no hands, or their wheels had spun them into uncertainty. There were shop windows into which she could look, but they were dimly light or their blinds were drawn down and their goods concealed. A conspiracy of the light prevented her reflection from reaching her eyes. She looked at the glass and saw nothing in consideration of her regard – only shopkeepers' names and special offers. Her face – and his – did not register. Light itself had decided to ignore them, just as the late-patrolling cats and dawn-precursor birds ignored them.
Had they fallen off the edge of the world?
Why are we?
'I saw a funny thing today.'
'Yes?' Tom clicked through the channels, looking for football or a Top Gear rerun.
'It was in town. There was a girl.'
'That's unusual,' Tom said, to prove he was paying attention. Alison gave him a playful slap.
'It was funny.'
'A funny girl?'
'Yes, since you ask. She was wearing the oddest clothes – extraordinarily old-fashioned, like something out of a black and white film.'
'Not your period, then.'
'She was on a roof.'
'What; sitting on a roof? Standing on a roof? Throwing herself off a roof?'
'She wasn't suicidal, no. I don't think so. She was sitting on the parapet of Exeter College.'
'You were in the college?'
'I was seeing a friend. You know him – Jim Davis.'
'Prof Jim? The TV history guy?'
'You're going to be on telly?' Tom chortled 'Can I be on telly too?'
'Shut up! No, of course you can't be on telly!'
'Anyway, this girl. You say she was old-fashioned. How old was she?'
'Ten, eleven. And she had an animal of some kind with her.'
'The college cat?'
'It might have been. It was on her lap. She was stroking it.'
'Did anyone else see her?'
'Not as far as I know.'
'So you really are bonkers. You're seeing things. I thought as much.'
'Shut up, you!'
Alison tried to keep her email accounts separate. One for purely academic stuff, one for personal messages, one disposable for spam. Even so, it could be hard to distinguish work and home mails so when she got a private note from Méabh about a possible tutoring job it took her slightly by surprise. She'd been expecting an invitation to a girls' day at the spa.
The outcome of her reply appeared at her study door a few days later.
'Steve, is it? Do come in.' God, how old did she sound?
Steve – middle height, chubby, black tee-shirt over jeans, battered Docs, sixteen or so – shoved his way through the door and dumped his messenger bag on the floor.
'Miss Hawkins sent me.'
'Yes, I know. Grab a chair. I'll make coffee. Milk, sugar?'
A grunt of assent. Alison poured two cups of instant. They sat facing each other across the corner of her desk.
'So... Méabh – Miss Hawkins – suggested you could do with a little help with your GCSE history coursework.'
'That's right, miss.'
'Then let's start with truth. Facts, and truth. Tell me what you know.'
In the garden
They entered the gates of an urban park. It was silver-grey moonlit and the asphalt paths were hard to distinguish from the bordering grass. Still, he knew the way and, clasping her hand, led her under late-flowering trees and past plaque-bearing bushes (of unusual and foreign provenance) to a waterside meadow where they could rest and listen to the river flow.
She called, and they were three, and Alison took her companion and lifted him to her face. She kissed him and his tongue rasped her cheek, his soft breath tickled her nose. As at all times like this she felt a wholeness, a deep soundless communion. She, who was two, became truly one.
What did it take, to keep her real? On what did her existence depend?
To her left she saw a young man, surrounded by an aura of daylight, walk up to the water's edge. He took something – a small shining gold instrument – from his pocket and made as if to throw it into the river, but at the last moment changed his mind. He sat in the grass and seemed to consider, and to speak to a small companion sitting in the palm of his hand.
And then, in a seamless jump across time and space, he passed downstream in a Magdalen Bridge punt, standing in the craft's stern and talking to a fair-haired girl in a summer frock.
Then – but was it then? Did time divide these two moments, or did her mind perceive them simultaneously and only later split them off from one another?
A teenage girl with stubble-short hair ran past in a state of panic, fleeing a falling doom that only she could see, while two men navigated a motor boat and butty through Marsh Lock and a woman swam out into the Atlantic ocean, seeking the death of time.
Now they were two
A zeppelin's engines beat a double rhythm overhead. Fire fell and arrows flew, silhouettes defined by stars.
'Do they see me?' she asked her companion.
'Wave to them. See if they wave back.'
'Like royalty? From the wrist?' Alison laughed out loud.
'As you will.'
She stood up, but as her viewpoint changed the planes on which her visions rested shuffled like a pack of cards, obscuring themselves. Images, disconnected from her perception, they dispersed and found no focus in her eyes.
'I can't see them any more.' She groaned under the weight of a deep desolation. 'Or have I destroyed them?'
'No, they remain, but you have made them uncertain. Without your regard, they become cloudy and blurred at the edges. They grow indeterminate.'
Alison sat down again. She looked one last time for the images, but they had fled into the surrounding darkness. She had lost them. She turned to her companion and asked the question she hadn't thought she would ever need to ask:
'Who are you?'
'Don't you know?'
'I'm not quite sure. I mean, no I don't. At least, I think not.'
'But I am the one who regards you.'
'And if I did not? If I looked the other way?'
Alison began to think about the answer to that question, but it slipped softly from her mind and left her standing by herself, but not alone, in the Botanic Garden.
The child covers its eyes to make itself invisible
The woman in darkness throws no shadow
The man who stands behind the light cannot be seen
She stood by the side of his grave, head bowed, remembering. She regarded him. She kept him true. She kept him real.