Dayna just won’t quit. ‘It’s three in the morning,’ she whined from the darkened bedroom.
How can anyone sleep at a time like this?
I hunched closer to the screen.
‘What’s that?’ she called. ‘Stop muttering for Chrissake. I hate it when you mutter.’
‘I said there could be breakthroughs.’ Louder this time. ‘The news said for us to stay tuned and that’s just what I’m doing.’
‘Well why don’t you just marry the news?’ She flumped down in the bed with the pillow over her head.
BACK TO THE STUDIO.
THE NEWSREADER TURNS TO THE CAMERA. AN IMAGE OF THE WORLD WITH A DARK CIRCLE OBSCURING THE PACIFIC AND SOUTH AMERICA IS PROJECTED OVER HIS SHOULDER.
NEWSREADER: ‘…in Stockholm the panel of quantum physicists are struggling to find any certainty at all. The Borscht representative appears briefly but vanishes as soon as anyone notices him. Things look hopeless. More from Joan Plum.’
JOAN STANDING IN THE SNOW, A DARK BUILDING LOOMS IN THE BACKGROUND.
JOAN: ‘With only three days until they are due to report to the Security Council, the prospects of the panel reaching consensus are dimming hourly. I’m joined by the panel’s chair Professor Wilfred Fensbo…Professor is it true that at current rates the world will be completely hollow in three years?
PROFESSOR: Our best saddelite measurements show zee mass of zee earth ist shrinking, und with it gravidy. How long vill it take? Zat is zee ten-thousand-dollar question No? Jah? Eh?
JOAN: Is there anything we can do?
PROFESSOR: Do? I zink we’ve done quite enough already, don’t you?
‘Poopee. Come to bed.’ She was at it again.
I am not sleeping while this is going on. I’ve watched all the big broadcasts—Gulf War one and two, nine-eleven (over and over), hijackings, floods, plagues. Every moment the news is renewed with miracles, murders and the moral bankruptcy of institutions and now comes the story of a lifetime—the world being consumed from the inside by some kind of vacuum strangelet particle thing. They never come out and say it of course but if they don’t do something we’re all going to perish in some horrible spaghetti-like stretching where our toes will go out to infinity as we watch.
‘We’re all going to die you know,’ I called over my shoulder.
‘So how’s that news?’ she snapped back.
BACK TO THE STUDIO.
NEWSREADER: While speculation continues, there’s no doubt that things are getting lighter. So how are the unflappable citizens of New Yen City coping? We cross to Ruby Gales who’s downtown for World Nightly News.
RUBY GALES ON A BUSY CITY STREET.
RUBY: Excuse me sir, what do you think?
CITIZEN: It’s them dang scientist fellas. Guvmint should have pulled the plug on that new supercollider. Nuthin good was ever going to come of all that tinkering, smashing atoms about. If we was meant to know the Universe’s secrets the Almighty would have said something by now. Stands to reason doan it?
RUBY: What about you Miss?
MISS: It’s kinda bongo you know. I mean look at me, no more diets and I feel OK. World ends, we all end. And all that old stuff coming back. Even Blix my old boyfriend called round yesterday. I hadn’t seen him for ten years. He hasn’t changed mind you—
RUBY: And you sir?
YOUNG EXECUTIVE: I’m with her. Look how high I can jump, whoo…oooeeee…ooo.
It was much the same wherever you went. After months of outrage and blaming and riots; after pillorying the boy-genius who’d actually spilled the demon particle from its hyper-magnetic flask and saw it flash through the containment chamber heading for the earth’s core; after all the inquiries and denials and endless words, people stopped caring and started mucking around again.
In the low-gravity world they discovered that while they couldn’t actually fly they were able to take inordinately long steps. Commuters could walk to work in bounding lunar leaps. And despite the warnings some smart alecks eschewed the elevators and boinged right up the sides of their buildings. Then grinning stupidly, they would tap on the windows of their skyscrapers and ask to be let in. Hilarious. There was the inevitable epidemic of moonwalking injuries—broken legs and ankles from those who didn’t know the difference between weight and mass—but generally there was more stupidity than hysteria
AND AT THE STUDIO:
NEWSREADER: One of the unexpected effects of the lightening world has been the arrival on the surface of things that had been lost. Archaeologists are being run off their feet with the reappearance of relics from around the world. Dr Ramakrishna Sarasvati from the Department of Antiquities at the Burnt University joins me. Dr Rama wassup?
DR RAMA: Terry, it’s global and it’s fascinating. Missing ships—the Andrea Doria and the Marie Celeste—have arrived in port, three ancient cities have appeared in the Gobi desert, they’ve finally corralled the Trojan horse and we’ve had early reports of a land mass rising in the Mediterranean. It’s too early to be sure but we think it could be Atlantis.
NEWSREADER: Atlantis rising? Woo hoo.
DR RAMA: Indeed, but restitution is also going on at a much smaller scale. Why just this morning I found eleven odd socks as well as a door-key which I’d lost three years ago. Pennies and even the odd dollar bill are emerging from the backs of couches all over the city. This could have a significant economic impact…’
Three years on and gravity’s way down. I’d left Dayna, taken up drinking and moved into the Botanic gardens where I’d built myself a nice little frond shelter.
One of few things I liked about the lightweight world was the plants. Freed from gravity’s rainbow they had thrown themselves into the sky in vegetable exuberance. Miniature decoratives had burst from their planter boxes in flowing carpets of colour; espaliered shrubs had torn up their trellises and clambered up walls, roofs and eaves; temperate gardens had turned into abundant liana-infested jungles.
So as summer declined into an even lighter autumn I squatted there with my flagon amongst the verdant greenery, an unshaven caterpillar in a crumpled suit. Come winter I’d probably have to move but it would do for now.
It still grated that people weren’t taking things seriously. I said as much to Mike behind the bar at The Golem’s Thread.
Mike agreed. ‘It’s the little things,’ he said rubbing a glass with a tired green tea-towel. ‘Take Jolene, my ex-. She was an absolute honey. First year of marriage we’re happy as a pair of crabs in a bucket. But I was working long hours to get this place started and well… ‘ He held the glass up to the nicotine light, pinged its rim with a thumbnail and pulled another from the wash. ‘If only I’d watched for the details. It was all there—one day she passes on kissing me in the morning, next she stops making me sandwiches and suddenly we’re doing the divorce-court tango. Turns out while I’d been overtiming here she’d been putting up shelves with some moustachioed handyman called Raoull.’ He put the glass down and leaned on the bar looking at me intensely. ‘Henry, we all gotta pay much more attention.’ We drank to that wisdom in silence. Unnoticed in the corner, the TV news clamoured and headlines flashed in the dimness.
On my way out, for no reason at all, I took a card from the flyblown noticeboard: Domestic Flying Lessons and a phone number. That’s all it said. I looked at Mike who was turning his cloth into another glass. ‘I hate flying,‘ I said. ‘More so without an aircraft.’
He shrugged. ‘It’ll get you out in the daytime. Anyway the first lesson’s free so what’s to lose?’
So I called.
It was morning a few days later when someone peeled away the roof of my leafy shelter and beamed down at me. It was a woman, definitely a woman. Although from where I lay in my hot green bower, a hammer beating in my skull, I may have died and she was the angel assigned to escort my spirit onwards.
‘Are you here to…save me?’ I mumbled.
‘I’m Judith and it’s time for your first flying lesson.’
I shouldn’t have bothered; I had no aptitude. While she could hang inverted two metres above the ground and sculpt long languid curves in the air my attempts were graceless clawing tumbles which ended most times with me whumping headfirst onto the lawn.
After the third free lesson she gave up. Most of her other students had already moved into the great bladder ships so in the afternoon we’d just sit on the grass and drink and watch the boats flying or take in the news on my portable TV.
One time one of the giant ships rolled across the sky, a vast warty red balloon shadowing the far side of the city. Transports and helicopters swarmed about it delivering stores and the last of the passengers.
‘Don’t you…?’ I asked.
She shook her head mutely as if to say that she would never abandon the freedom of grass and sky and sailboats fierce before the wind; or that she so dreaded to meet her father again, how he had hurt her, and if he were to come round a corner or even if she were to see him on an escalator in some shopping mall up there, it would be too much; or that she was an incurable claustrophobe who would run demented through any ship’s corridors no matter how broad, how long.
THE UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY. THE SECRETARY-GENERAL IS HOLDING ONTO THE LECTERN TO STOP FROM DRIFTING OFF.
‘Folks it’s time. The advisory panel are pretty certain that gravity will vanish completely in the next few days. So it’s time to lighten up, eh? People, eh? (laughter) The migration into the great bladder ships is nearly complete and to any stick-in-the-mud stay-behinds I say, it’s time to turn the gas off, put the cat out and make the move, eh? (laughter).
Unseen, a piano plays a soft chord and the Secretary-General lifts the microphone from its stand and sings:
All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go
I’m standing here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye.
The members of the Security Council bob across the stage and karaoke the chorus.
So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go…
(warm laughter and applause as the whole room joins in)
I turned the TV off. Judith and I sat on the lawn drinking what was probably the last cask-chardonnay in the world. It was sweet regret in my mouth but my throat was tight. I couldn’t swallow and the wine overflowed and ran down the sides of my face. There was something inside me moving about, rising up. I still had so much left to say: words, all kinds—nouns, verbs, conjunctions—they were all going to come out in a flood. Everyone had better stand back. Maybe it was only a single all-encompassing giant universe-of-a-word. Perhaps it was just a sonorous syllable, a sound. It was moving in me, a huge gas bubble rising out of a restless sea. I was a geyser, a Mount St Helens about to pop my top. Held down for so long—held down by the drink and bitterness and unsympathy and insistence about how the world was supposed to work but didn’t—and now I was about to spew it all up. And it felt right, like giving birth.
I tried to help it along by standing, then lying down, then sitting. I pushed down on my diaphragm and formed my mouth into shapes. I tried an O, then a great distended mouth-stretch with my head thrown back my eyes wide, then a pursed cat’s arse. None of these shapes felt right and in the end there was nothing much just a bit of blowing.
What kind of conclusion is that? Here I was at the end of the world stinking of cheap wine with one last chance to say something, literally, and having nothing to shout back into the vacuum, back at an uninterested, disinterested, distant god probably already gone. I barely managed a groan.
‘Never mind,’ Judith said and squeezed my hand.
By this time, the water had gone up through the darkening sky and the harbour was a canyon falling into the blue. Soon it would be our turn but for a while yet we sat on the edge holding hands, a pair of dolls with nothing much inside, leaning together against the rising wind.
Thanks for reading.