I went to the heart of the city to gather some stories about lives and looked out over roof tops to north, south, east and west. In the north I found a lady worried about how she’d cope with financial affairs once her husband had died while their daughter was taking famous journalists around the world tempting them with tantalisingly colourful places to write about. The lady and I thought about how we’d have liked that job when we were younger. Now we were older it didn’t matter.
But, we agreed, it would be best if our men outlived us.
In the south I found a financial adviser. He wouldn’t help the lady, but he might help me except it was him who needed the help. He’d reached an impasse with his family. Separated from his wife she’d poisoned the minds of his two younger children against him, and if they showed any inclination to want to see him she’d slap them down, even punish them. Should he, so desperate to see them, give up that paternal rite in order to protect them?
Something would have to give, we both agreed.
In the west I found an old friend who told me a thing I’d not known before. She’d started her tale unobtrusively, without any opening, without any sign it was going anywhere. I won’t tell you the story that left me feeling astonished now except to say that it happened twenty three years ago, and after it my friend and I asked, how could anyone have survived?
It was a sobering question we agreed. The possibility that you could re-surface from what could have been the dead heap of you. Rise, from what might have been your oblivion. A miracle, we agreed a second time.
In the east I found my children. There were merchandising and serving and studying. Fasting and cycling and toning. Loving and leaving and phoning. If that eclipsed me I was happy, because their lives like little fragments of jewels shone on to mine, nor was I eclipsed to myself.
I went to the heart of the city to gather some stories about lives and energy. Like you perhaps I have watched a scientist on television who makes the universe intelligible in some ways.
All is energy he says.
Neither created or destroyed, but transforming always from one form to another, energy is eternal.
Across the world energy is converted into heat, which is us, but cools to zero until the cosmos grinds to a halt and everything decays.
While the earth tends towards decay, living things hang on to a little bit of order, converting energy into heat, transforming it from an ordered to disordered form, borrowing energy from the wider world then exporting it as disorder.
Heat is a highly disordered form of energy.
The chicken is hotter than its surroundings. The law of thermodynamics, about the energy life takes in and gives out, dictates that chickens will export more disorder than the order they import. This is the law of physics that governs them as physical structures. Amen.
Just by being alive we are part of the energy of transformation that drives the evolution of the universe. We have taken sunlight from its origins at the start of time and transformed it into heat that will last for an eternity. At the heart of the city I found energy being passed from person to person.
I went to the edge of the land and seeing a hurricane in the distance remembered what the scientist had said about all being energy in constant movement. In the storm it seeks balance, high pressure flowing to low. Through the senses of sight, taste, touch and hearing our universe expands. Our insatiable quest for information makes us who we are.
I looked out again to the north. The husband of the lady called Jill who was worried about money had had a heart attack. Now he was recovering and drinking less wine. While he was recovering he walked along the edge of the land aided by his stick. A woman whose dog barked at him apologised and explained that the dog didn’t like sticks because he’d been beaten by them when he was a puppy. Jill’s husband said that he didn’t like sticks either. That he wouldn’t use it against the dog. But, said the woman standing on the other leg, I would if I were you.
Jill and her husband had left the city to be down with me at the edge of the land.
When I looked south the financial adviser whose name was John told me about a conversation he’d recently had with his little girl on the phone. She was telling him about a dog that had wandered in from the playground while they were at lunch and got locked into the classroom. Before she finished the story John could hear her mother interrupting, calling her eleven year old a two faced bitch, ‘you told me you didn’t want to talk to daddy. You know it might make me feel ill again if you do’. And the little girl remembered that last time her mother was ill they’d known from the trail of blood seeping out from under her bedroom door, and then she’d been taken to hospital.
John had left the city to be down with me.
When I looked west the woman Jane who’d survived the accident twenty three years ago with my friend Jenny was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. All that time Jane had worked as a teacher in a secondary school while bringing up her two boys. A few years ago she’d become assistant head. But the erratic head also under pressure from governing bodies, alternately blamed her for what went wrong in the school, then praised her for what went right. Although everyone knew she’d always been a decent person, well-loved and efficient at her job, the head wrote her a note saying she’d reported her for incompetence. The next day she couldn’t go into work. She would go to the doctor to get a note.
I’d suggested to Jane she should come and get some rest with me down on the edge of the land. She had. With Jenny. Now I have Jill and her husband, John, Jane and Jenny all staying with me.
In the east where the sun rises one child frets about tickets for a festival, another about the thinness of walls and another about deadlines. They do not stay with me.
Jill, John, Jane, Jenny and I walk on cliffs at the edge of the land and hear the constant thud and suck of the waves as they deposit and scoop up the pebbles. We march even, on paths that are part stony, part tarmac and covered with green of lichen, moss and grass. We sit in a posh bar looking out to the white cliffs of France illuminated by flashes of sun. A black-blobbed flock of birds becomes invisible when they turn circles the harbour.
I used to sit here when this was a makeshift bar that sold double spirits for two pounds. It was nice then. It’s nice now too.
We discuss what the scientist, who we’ve all watched, says. Three and a half billion years ago the earth was empty, silent. Yet even then there was a speck from which everything, every person we’ve ever known to exist, or has or will ever exist, descended. This first expression, whether chemical or cellular, of a form of life known as the Last Universal Common Ancester is the fundamental biology used by all life. We are all made up of the same DNA, the same twenty amino acids that build up life’s proteins.
Mutation of DNA may be detrimental or beneficial.
Mutation is an inevitable part of living on earth.
Mutations are the spring from which innovation in the living world flows.
All my friends except Jenny leave the edge of the land. She and I walk in wellington boots along a gushing stream. It has burst its banks into a grassy field and now flows down the village high street. It comes to a ford which is double in size. Double water. Double energy. The water hasn’t yet reached the top of the kerb. Once it does there will be no stopping it pouring in through the front doors of cottages that line the street. The sand bags under them look puny. My place on the edge of the land, we have to admit with relief, is too high for streams.
Like DNA the mutation of energy may be detrimental or beneficial. One of these two, detrimental or beneficial, happens to my friends when they leave.
Jill and her husband go to India where their daughter, hoping to meet them, turns out to be too busy taking journalists round the sights of Varanasi. Just as they board a boat to watch the floating candles on the great river, Jill’s husband has another heart attack and dies near the corpses already being incinerated on the river’s banks. John’s wife doesn’t try to kill herself again because she knows it’d give them a reason to take her children away, but John stops talking to his children because his wife is still sane enough to punish them if he does. Jane cries when she goes to the doctor. The first thing he says is, don’t think I’m going to give you a sick note for six months. But now she cannot go back. She has decided to ask for early retirement, but isn’t sure how to word it to she get the benefits she needs to live.
Jill and her husband go to India and after spending time with their daughter in Varanasi while she waits for journalists to take round its sights, drive from Delhi towards the Thar desert. In Bikaneer they see the Lallgarth Palace, in Deshnok the temple of the Holy Rats, in Jodhpur, city of indigo blue Pearl, Pleasure and Flower palaces abounding with terracotta latticework and in Pushkar, the Holy City, milky blue temples and rows of ghats leading to The Sacred Lake. They take camel rides into desert. They visit the honey-combed Amber Palace of Jaipur. The Taj that recedes as you walk towards it; follows you if you back away. In the green oasis of Orcha they tour palaces where Islamic greens mix with Hindu blues. They visit the erotic carvings of Kajaraho. The holy river Ganga at sunrise. Jill’s husband does not have a heart attack.
Stories like energy they are told mutate or are reincarnated. The rats at Deshnok were reincarnated as rats by Karni Marta, tiger-riding wife of Shiva, because she was annoyed that Yama, god of death, hadn’t brought them back to life. Yama now was deprived of souls which were well and alive and reincarnated like energy always transforming.
John’s wife saw the folly of her ways and said of course John must see their children. She would leave the house on the same day each week so John could spend the evening with them after work. The first time she did that she left a plate full with salmon, sauce and sautéed sweet potato for him, lovingly prepared. The next day he spoke to Jill about her finances despite her husband being alive. Some tiny pennies I’d given him for planting had grown.
Jane’s doctor said she could have a sick note for as long as she needed it, but the head teacher who saw how eager the children were to please Jane and realised how indispensible she was to the smooth running of the school, hoped she’d be better to return to school. Very soon. She was and did.
On the edge of the land where Jenny and I still walk couples on Valentine’s Day kiss and cuddle on rocks or sit on a bench watching the sun set over the sea. All my children are scattered. Not like seeds in the wind. One is deliberately in Australia. Another in Laos. The other in Mexico. They are giants to me and little giants to themselves.
I watch the scientist again. He is talking now about how natural selection is restrained by the laws of physics – even the biggest tree doesn’t keep growing - and how size, absolutely, determines the way we live our lives, us who occupy the same planet inhabiting very different worlds. The one the giraffe views for instance, must be different from the mouse’s.
Yet we all fall at the same rate. From the smallest to the biggest molecule, gravity restricts the emergence of giants. By this very restriction are we protected. Jenny told the tale I have kept to the last.
Once, she said, she was sitting in the back seat of a car in France with a couple’s two children and them in the driver and passenger seat, when they’d passed a lorry which had dipped its lights. Her driver, who was probably very tired, took this to be a sign of a bend, but it wasn’t, and he careered off the road, all five of them tossed and turned by the car - six times. When my friend gained consciousness and looked around her, there was no one there. Then she heard the woman call out to her children and unharmed, they both unbelievably replied. So did the man. He pulled my friend out. There wasn’t a scratch on any of them, though you wouldn’t have expected anyone to survive from a car that had been completely mangled.
They passed its wreck again some days later having been discharged after checkups from hospital. It was crushed beyond recognition into a small metal lump too small for a human, no glass left in its windows. If the car hadn’t gone off the road at that point where there was a break in the huge boulders that lined it, they all agreed, they’d have died straight away. Still, how could they have survived the car’s six revolutions, the metal work reduced to a pulp?
Her survival, Jenny and I agreed again, was a miracle of protection. A saint presided over the place that wasn’t a bend. Over the possibility that you could re-surface from what seemed like certain death. Rise, from what wasn’t oblivion. Science says as much too. Yet both saint and science say it’s only as vulnerable surfaces of body do we protect, and need protecting, we that ‘too too solid flesh’ that won’t melt. Not so that dissolving, transforming energy that skips, whether lightly or ferociously, through Jill, John, Jenny, Jane and me.