Before this world consumes my soul, I’ll flee
beyond lost stars and forgotten galaxies
I beg you, do not search for me.
Before this world consumes my soul, I’ll flee
beyond lost stars and forgotten galaxies
I beg you, do not search for me.
Time to slow down
It’s Friday, finally.
The end of the week for me, and what a week it was. A week of turbulent news, both in the world at large and my little corner of it. Unwelcome developments, painful separations, and unexpected changes came thick and fast.
It’s been a hell of a week, actually.
So now I can relax, yes? Not really. My brain feels stuffed full and yet strangely empty at the same time. I cannot be mindful with a full mind. Little fragments of song play over and over. Weariness tugs at my limbs, and the to-do list dances in front of exhausted eyes.
It’s time to slow down.
So, I go out into the garden and sit. Just sit, nothing more. The sun is pleasantly warm on my skin, and the distant roar of traffic fades as I listen to birds chirping, and wind sighing in the trees. There are so many shades of green, if you only look. More birdsong, and if I am really still a brave robin approaches, his proud orange chest bright.
If I sit still enough, long enough, maybe I could become invisible. I pull my feet from sandals and curl my toes around cool grass, and watch cheerful daisies turn their faces to the sun. A blackbird hops by. The breeze brings a memory of roses.
Breathe, slow down, unwind. I drop my knapsack of cares so I can stretch shoulders bent under heavy burdens too long. I am Atlas released, Sisyphus freed, and for this and every moment that follows I will drink in the green refreshment of earth.
Sit still enough, long enough. Here tall trees give shade, blue sky exists, and thrushes sing in the warm sun because they must. I can be grounded and yet soaring, separate and yet whole.
Green will nourish and revive, and the earth will heal my torn and quivering heart. After a time, I will go on. But for now I let everything go.
Captain’s note: 147.29.1
These entries were made by Bard Loren, and discovered after her disappearance. In addition to the journal, she uploaded over 15 dozettabytes of data, which will greatly offset her tragic loss on this unsuccessful mission. This is her legacy. May she walk with two shadows.
Journal entry: 147.15.1
This is a place more wondrous than I ever thought to see with my own eyes. Everywhere is green.
Bright colours flash and call above me, I think they are called ‘birds’. All around are things I cannot name. But I must try to name them, for that is why I was chosen. I am the foremost Bard of Novaterra, and I swear on the twin suns this is no idle boast. I store the images in my digicodex for later analysis back on board. All those nights in the archives, imprinting lost languages and reading the history of the Founders have come to this.
I have my epicsongs composed and ready, to share with the good people here. This is the greatest honour, to see our origin planet, and save any who wish to leave it.
I confess I hardly recognised this place from the files. The Founders recorded how their home stagnated, torn apart by war that followed desperation when the skies turned grey, the waters rose and land became scarce. That is why they turned to space. We have made the journey of these few light years much quicker than they.
But I did not say it was easy. It is cold in the space between stars, and no place for humankind. We were relieved when the planetary beacon guided us safely to the docking station. Although it was entirely unmanned, this did not surprise us. It is hardly necessary to waste human toil on such a routine task.
I must rest. Solar days are shorter here, and there is only 0.2095 oxygen in the air. No doubt a good 18 hours of true sleep will help wash away the lingering effects of hypersleep.
Journal entry: 147.15.2
This place is magical. Despite the warnings of the cyberdoc, I removed my helmet today. The air is quite breathable although I am gasping and sweating as I press on through green vegetation, towards the last recorded location of a sizeable humankind settlement. I am both excited and apprehensive. Will they understand me, and I them? Do they have their own, ancient culture to share with me? Will they understand the concept of a Bard?
I carry our history, our thoughts and ideas coded in organic memory storage. Perhaps they do not have the necessary interface and holo-display, but we carry these on the ship. The rest of the crew have stayed on board, broadcasting on all frequencies, but I wanted to experience this world first hand. Darkness caught me unawares and I had to return to the ship. More tomorrow.
Journal entry: 147.15.3
I asked the cyberdoc to enhance my performance, and grudgingly it performed a small gene splice. Now my oxycytes are more suited to the stronger, bluer sunlight here. Sol is much closer to Earth than our twins Novasol 1+2, and we have adapted over the generations. Oxygen is abundant at 0.2547 on Novaterra, and I really feel the difference. It was predicted of course, but to actually feel it- that is another thing altogether.
Captain Marish does not like my wandering. She only tolerates it because I am a Bard, and therefore expendable. But I am bringing back valuable data, and I upload my digicodex each night before sleep.
Journal entry: 147.15.9
I discovered today that my blood is dark red now. Maybe this is unwise, but I have discarded my Exosuit. I found liquid water running on the surface! This I know is a key characteristic of Earth, but to see it, feel it, taste it. I walked into the water to understand it better, but slipped and fell. I cut my hand on a mineral formation beside the water, and watched in wonder as dark drops welled from the cut and dispersed into the liquid water. I keep saying this, but you have to see it to believe it. No mining, people can actually live on the surface here! Amazing.
Journal entry: 147.16.3
I have not encountered any humans, but have recorded many types of lower animals. Marish tells me that all is in the archives, but what does she know? The Academy does not encourage questioning, and after all I am the one who has spent more than fifteen twin-sols studying Earth.
I find myself out of step with the crew. They refuse to come out of the ship, and my sleep cycle seems to be related to Sol’s movements.
But the things that are not in the archives are marvellous. Where the trees thin out, Sol’s yellow rays are warm on my skin. My breathing is easier now, and I carry skinbond for minor injuries. At night, I see unfamiliar stars that do not appear on my maps, and there is a single moon.
How could the Founders have considered this place so terrible that they journeyed across the stars to find Novaterra? It seems utterly beautiful to me. Oh, the epicsongs I will compose when I return! They will be the stuff of legend.
Journal entry: Sol 16
I have decided to use solar dates from now on. It makes more sense, and when I stay out overnight in a pod I get a little disoriented keeping to Standard Time. I came across the strangest thing today. (Image attached). I will research these metallic structures in the database.
Journal entry: Sol 21
There has been no response to broadcast and the Captain wants to move on. The metallic structures are manmade, and they were some kind of primitive transportation. They all point away from the settlement co-ordinates in a long, unbroken procession. There are no humans, anywhere. Are they hiding? Did they flee, and if so from what?
Journal entry: Sol 35
I have uploaded all my data. I cannot find the settlement; it is as though the earth has swallowed it in green. But I have Sol warm on my skin, rich scents as yet unnamed and the taste of liquid water on my lips. My skin grows pinker each day, and the only grey is beneath my unisuit. I feel strong and I am happy. I cannot convey to you the joy I feel when I hear the birds sing, and I leave that to another, better Bard than I.
Meantime, I have taken the interface and holodisplay, and some supplies. When I succeed I will activate my beacon. I am sure that no one would willingly leave a place like this, that the Founders would surely have called “Eden”. My search for humans goes on, for I must find them.
She tried to forget about the box. Really she kept herself so very busy, that she almost truly forgot about it. But it was always there, catching her step when she walked past, whispering into her ears when she wasn’t listening.
A box could contain everything and nothing. But she didn’t look because she didn’t care to find out.
She found it one warm summer afternoon, long after the funeral. She had been stiff and dignified, accepting the mourners’ murmured words of condolence. But she felt nothing. Those words rang hollow after all the sniping and criticism. Her mother had ground her down for years until there was nothing left. Or so she thought.
It was so unfair that there was nobody else to help. Her beloved father had gone years before. She imagined him apologising to the paramedic.
“Sorry to cause all this fuss,” he would have said as they bundled him off to the hospital. There, he had held her hand as she wept real tears.
“Really, Theresa, you’re making an exhibition of yourself.” Her mother’s scold bit deep.
She tried not to cry at his funeral. At her mother’s funeral, she didn’t. They all said how well she was doing.
Clearing out the house alone, she found the little dusty blue box, tied with navy ribbon. Eventually she gave in. It rattled.
Inside it she found the baby shoe she had once worn. Finally she cried, that her mother had remembered a softer, better time.
*written longhand in ten minutes, from a random word prompt: box
This object may be unfamiliar to some, now that milk comes almost exclusively in plastic jugs. Or in bags, so I’ve heard, if you live in Canada. But before plastic bottles and supermarkets, milk came in glass bottles, left on your doorstep by a milkman who collected your empties.
We’ve all heard about Proust’s petite madeleine, and how it triggered a memory of his childhood. If you watch the film Ratatouille, there is a lovely homage to this. The sneering food critic Anton Ego, a grey and joyless man, is transported back to his warm, colourful boyhood by a single mouthful of ratatouille like his mother used to make. It is a defining moment for him.
Last year I spent a few days at a cottage in Wales. The owners had left a few basic food items in the fridge, one of which was the bottle of milk pictured above. Yes, I was so amazed that I took a photo of it.
Margaret Thatcher was renowned as the first woman Prime Minister of Britain. But before her ascent to be first among equals, she was infamous for abolishing free milk in schools. Every child in infant schools received a bottle of milk daily, around a third of a pint. It was a great honour to be appointed milk monitor, helping the teacher hand out the bottles, each with a straw to be poked through the foil top. This was of course full cream, homogenised milk, semi-skimmed was yet to be invented.
I hated it.
These days I’d wear my label of lactose intolerance proudly. In those days such nonsense wasn’t tolerated. You drank your milk, or else. During the cold days of winter, the paper straw had to be plunged through an ice cap to reach the freezing milk below. It chilled my mouth and sat uneasily in my rebellious stomach, leaving me with a bloated discomfort till lunchtime.
I learned to keep quiet about it. Complaining did no good. Consequently, when other people criticised her, I silently applauded Mrs Thatcher, milk snatcher.
Was it just the temperature? Not really. Fast forward a few years. My parents worked shifts, and if my mother was doing earlies (6am to 2pm) she would heat a pan of milk for our breakfast before she left for work. We would wake to warm milk for our Weetabix or shredded wheat, the aroma filling the kitchen. At bedtime, she heated more milk to make Ovaltine or drinking chocolate. It should have been comforting. My siblings loved it.
I ate toast.
Even writing this recalls the smell of boiled milk, and my stomach shifts. Years after that, I would flee from people making hot milk. These days, I don’t mind hot chocolate, as long as I don’t have to smell the milk heating.
But I see a glass milk bottle, and I’m five years old again, dreading morning break and the forced drink that grown-ups said was good for me.
I might have been young, but I knew my own mind. The milk bottle taught me that I didn’t have agency and shouldn’t talk back to adults.
Today, the glass milk bottle reminds me that the world has moved on. Thank goodness.
I thought I was over you. It’s been a while now, and they say time heals.
They don’t say how much time.
I got a new phone. It was a good opportunity for a clear out, you know, out with the old, all that. Anyway. I should just have hit delete all, but I’m always careful, don’t want to discard something important. So I listened to all the messages, clicking through, delete delete.
Your voice caught me by surprise. Your tone was sad, asking me to call back. I didn’t remember ever getting the message. Listening again, it sounded like you really needed to speak to me. Whatever you had wanted, obviously it could never happen. I’d sat in the front pew, blinded by tears. Grief swallowed my voice and I couldn’t sing for you one last time. That broke me even more.
I deleted that message.
Then the messages started, from an unknown number. They were crackly and unclear, but your voice was always there.
I deleted them all. They kept coming, though I changed my phone again. One day I heard you on the landline answerphone, and my heart stopped, for a panicked moment. I threw out the answerphone.
It felt like going mad.
After a while, I started to wonder. Were you really trying to contact me? Nobody has ever proved communication from the dead, and I certainly didn’t believe in any mumbo-jumbo. But. What if it was you, trying to pierce the veil from the other side?
The idea took root in my mind, and I stopped deleting the messages that popped up on my voicemail. I listened to them over and over, your almost-words teasing me.
I ran them through voice analysis software, trying to make out your words. Sometimes I thought it was just you breathing, but with distant singing and static. Waiting for me to reply.
I have so many things to say to you.
I have a brilliant idea about the source so I bought a ham radio and I’m combing the frequencies. I’m certain that if I tune in right, we can talk again. There’s a lot of wavebands to cover, but nothing is more important than this.
I will devote all the time we didn’t have to finding you. No matter how long it takes. I already know what song I will sing.
Can you hear me?
Would you walk a mile in my shoes?
We all draw different hands in life. It’s easy to envy some people, and feel superior to others, based on your level of opportunity and perceived status. More of that depends on mere chance than we’d like to believe.
We want to believe that we’d do the right thing, cope with that challenge, rise up against that evil tyrant. That’s why we devour movies in which characters challenge oppression, follow their principles and stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellows. Sure, other people lack moral backbone. But I’d give the last seat in the lifeboat to the pregnant woman, the last crust of bread to the starving child. Wouldn’t you?
Well, it depends. And that doesn’t make for thrilling viewing.
Remember Hans Christian Andersen’s original story of the red shoes? The little girl put on the pretty red shoes and forgot her duty to the church and her adoptive mother. She was cursed to dance without end, and eventually asked the executioner to chop off her feet. The shoes danced away on their own. (Original fairy tales are often rather gory.)
Kate Bush sings a softer version, in which she envies a dancer her prowess. The dancer tells her to remove them, and she too could dance like a princess.
She realises, too late, that she has taken on the dancer’s curse. Now it is her turn to dance away, envied and admired by all, but unable to escape. She is trapped by her own desire and actions, and the only way out is to condemn someone else.
Perhaps to begin with, she swears she would not let another person suffer as she does. But eventually, weary and ground down, she would dream of nothing else.
Would any of us do differently?
As writers, artists, creators, we toil away and dream of success. We look at the shining stars, the Rowlings and Gaimans, the Downey Jrs and Lawrences, the Beyoncés and Biebers. We want a taste of limousines and red carpets, money, fame, privilege. It sounds great, from the viewpoint of impoverished obscurity.
If the mask slips, and a star is revealed as a struggling human resorting to drugs or alcohol, who cannot smile and twirl on command, we tut. Fancy that, forgetting the fans and failing to do their job. How hard can it be? I’d never behave like that.
This is the age of celebrity as never before. Ordinary mortals are thrust into positions of extraordinary scrutiny and rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. The only catch is, they must continue the dance, no matter what. Even at the cost of the very artist that gave them life, the shoes dance on.
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues
Michael Jackson’s last tour would have netted millions. But it is a drop in the ocean compared to his after death earnings. According to Forbes’ list of the top earning dead celebrities in 2016, MJ earned $825m, the largest total of anyone dead or alive. Even Elvis earned $27m and sold over one million (mainly physical) albums. That is some feat, 40 years after his death. There are some very happy lawyers and managers out there.
The art becomes a machine, and the entire entourage is focussed on their own agenda. Keep the gravy train rolling. To achieve it, the machine must keep churning out product. Something new, but also something the same. This is no place for brave creative experiments. A few turn their back and walk away, like Sade or Rick Astley. Others live and die in their silk-lined prisons.
Do you still want it? Public battles with demons both internal and external is standard tabloid fodder.
Do you still want it? The isolation from reality and broken relationships replaced with fawning employees are well documented.
Do you still want it? The obsession with physical appearance, every pound and line and grey hair displayed to the world’s media, reduces humans to meat for consumption.
Do you still want it? We imagine fame buys freedom, but actually it gilds the cage and puts diamonds on the handcuffs.
These shoes of fame are lined with cruel blades that ravage your flesh every waking moment, but especially when you dance for the audience. You look good and it’s killing you. That gorgeous red is your own blood, trailing behind you with each exquisite, exhausted pirouette. That smile is a grimace of fear and pain without end. Even death is no escape.