As part of my brief as Durham's CELEBRATE SCIENCE author in residence, I was asked to write a 3000-word piece inpired by my residency. The nature of the work wasn't specified, other than that it should be a response to my experience of time spent in Durham - the city and the university.
I wrote the following piece of fiction, SIX DAYS. It stands alone I think, but I see it as the germ of a novel which I hope to start writing next year.
|Window designed by Marc Chagall, UN building New York|
There was something about the way the woman stood that made him think she’d been there for some time. Standing with her back toward him, centred under the large stained glass window, she gazed upwards. Even when someone moved within her orbit, she didn’t drop her eyes or look to the side. It was as if she were oblivious to the cathedral traffic: the dawdling tourists, bustling clergy and chattering school parties who wove their way round her still figure, keeping a respectful distance.
Joe had no wish to intrude on the woman’s contemplation, but he wanted to take a closer look at the Creation window (so called because it depicted the first chapter of Genesis), so he approached cautiously, taking up a position to one side, giving the woman a wide berth.
As he studied the window, he was still aware of her in his peripheral vision, standing in a pool of coloured light. He sensed rather than saw her shift her weight from one leg to the other, but otherwise she didn’t move. Curious now, he registered an impulse to turn and look at her – an impulse he nevertheless suppressed. He feared he might find her in a state of distress. People sometimes got emotional in cathedrals. He didn’t wish to feel either embarrassed or obligated, so Joe confined his attention to the window.
There was plenty to occupy his mind. The window was contemporary, with six lights, or panes of glass, separated by stone mullions. Each light represented one of the six days of the biblical creation. As the narrative moved from left to right, order emerged gradually from chaos. The design began with a dark, impressionistic evocation of the Almighty’s raw materials and ended with a teeming but pictorially precise timeline on the far right, depicting the natural history of the modern world, from Noah’s ark, descending via the dodo and Darwin’s giant tortoises, to what Joe took to be a representation of a polar bear on a shrinking ice-cap. In the background, waves of turquoise water curled like a nautilus shell, approached an emblematic land mass. Whether they represented the normal motion of the sea or a tsunami, there was no way of knowing.
Colourful and comprehensive, Joe decided, but certainly not cosy. Belatedly, he noticed a caption pieced out of coloured glass running underneath the six pictures: And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
He was relieved the artist had ignored advice to be fruitful and multiply; pleased that there was no exhortation to subdue the Earth or claim dominion over every living thing. Just the simple (and enigmatic) statement: And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, underneath a series of illustrations that began and ended with a disturbing evocation of watery chaos. Joe found himself wondering whether the artist was a Christian. The window didn’t exactly toe the party line.
As if she’d read his thoughts, the woman suddenly turned to him and said, ‘Are you here because you believe? Or because it looked like rain?’
Surprised to be addressed, Joe was caught off-guard by the question. He was also thrown by his inability to place the woman’s age. She was no longer young – her red hair was greying at the temples – but her large brown eyes were bright as a child’s and her high forehead unlined. Joe tried to recall why he’d stepped into the cathedral. A sense of cultural duty, he supposed. No visit to this city was complete apparently without a visit to its cathedral. He thought that might have been his motive. Then he remembered Monika and his irrational desire to light a candle for her, before her own light was extinguished and he said, ‘I’m about to become a father.’
‘No… I didn’t mean it like that. My ex-wife is dying and our daughter is about to become my responsibility. I’ve barely seen her since she was a baby.’
‘How old is she?’
The woman’s eyes widened. ‘Good grief! Poor kid... And poor you.’
‘I’m very sorry about your wife.’
‘Ex-wife. We parted shortly after the baby – our daughter – was born… Actually, I came in here to light candles for them both. And – well, to have a look round. I’ve never been here before.’
‘So… you are a believer?’
‘I’m a scientist.’
She tilted her head to one side and regarded him. ‘Forgive me, but I don’t think you’ve actually answered my question.’
He smiled but didn’t meet her eye. ‘I believe in science. But if you’re asking me if I believe in God – any god – then I would have to say no.’ He gazed up at the window. ‘But I envy those who do. Who can.’
‘Because if you believe, the story – the story of our planet – makes some kind of sense. Why there’s something, rather than nothing. The story has a beginning and an end – if you believe in the day of Judgement. Heaven. Hell.’
The woman frowned. ‘But don’t scientists have a beginning too? The Big Bang? And as for ending – well, isn’t there supposed to be a “Complete Theory of Everything” now? That must surely include the dénouement? Stephen Hawking in the library with all the suspects and a solution.’
As he laughed softly, the woman saw the strain drop away from his drawn face. He suddenly looked much younger. She wondered if she’d somehow rendered him some small service and felt glad.
‘I don’t think any Theory of Everything will tell us what created the circumstances that led to the Big Bang, any more than a Christian theologian can tell us who created God.’
‘Yes, it’s the same intellectual dead end, isn’t it, for believer and atheist alike. St Paul’s was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, but who designed Sir Christopher Wren?’ She waved a hand dismissively. ‘There’s just no end to it.’
‘Or beginning. Which is why I love Genesis. And I think,’ he said, looking upwards again, ‘it’s why I love this window.’
‘Do you?’ Her tone was almost accusatory.
‘Because it answers the questions. It tells the story. And it has a beginning, a middle and an end.’
‘And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good.’
‘Exactly. It’s a proper story, complete with happy ending.’
‘But… it’s not true.’
He turned and smiled. ‘Why let truth get in the way of a good story?’ He watched her face as momentary confusion gave way to amusement. Only then did he realise he’d felt slightly intimidated by the woman’s physical presence, which he knew had little to do with her height, or the opulence of her untidy auburn hair, and nothing at all to do with beauty. Her face was unadorned, her strong features almost mannish, but her eyes were arresting. Fearless, was the word that sprang to Joe’s mind, though he had no idea why. Perhaps that was why he’d felt intimidated. Her eyes challenged him. To a duel of words and ideas? He took up the gauntlet.
‘Science has a story, but it’s not complete. If the Big Bang is the answer, what set it in train? We need a prequel. And we don’t have a proper ending. Only theories.’
He shrugged. ‘We’ll fry or we’ll freeze.’
‘Choose your own adventure,’ she replied with a smile.
‘I have a young nephew who writes Choose Your Own Adventure books. He used to read them, then he decided he wanted to write his own. Play God, I suppose. He’s creative, but rather controlling.’
‘No, my nephew. Though now you come to mention it…’ The woman grinned. ‘Anyway, when you read these adventure books, you make choices and, as a consequence, a variety of terrible things happen to you. You freeze or you fry. And it’s all your own fault. Because you chose that path.’ A mobile phone pierced the cathedral’s hush with its strident jingle. The woman scowled and gestured impatiently toward the sound. ‘Just imagine if we’d said no to the Industrial Revolution… You know, Native American Indians didn’t bother to invent the wheel. Didn’t need to. They didn’t own anything a horse couldn’t drag.’
‘But then look what happened to them.’
‘That’s just how it is in my nephew’s books. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Whatever choice you make, you end up in mortal peril. But I gather that’s all part of the fun. Life and death as a game. Dodging your own extinction.’
Joe shook his head. ‘There’ll be no dodging our planet’s extinction. The end may not be nigh, but it is inevitable.’
‘Freezing or frying?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘So, tell me, how does your story end?’
‘I’m not a storyteller. I only observe. Record. And try to make sense of my findings.’
‘What are you exactly? If you don’t mind my asking?’
‘I’m a physicist. I’m also a musician. Of sorts.’
‘That’s an odd combination.’
‘Not really. I don’t see that there’s that much difference between physics and music. Everything has a numerical basis. Physics is about maths and music is about numbers, just as much as maths is.’
‘So how does your story end? Let me guess… The physicist saw everything that God had made and behold, it was very dead.’
‘I don’t have an ending. Only predictions.’
‘I’m all ears.’
He felt daunted by her persistence, but acknowledged also that he felt happier thinking about an unimaginably distant future than his own. He took a couple of steps toward her and began to speak, his casual tone at odds with his subject matter. ‘There are two basic scenarios. Number one… Two galaxies, Andromeda and the Milky Way – which is ours – are on course for collision in about two billion years’ time. It won’t be a galactic car crash, more like the mixing up of the contents of the two galaxies. If this happens, the earth could be torn out of its orbit around the Sun and life on earth will cease.'
‘Because we’ll freeze?’
‘Yes. But we’ll have a great send-off. The colliding galaxies will contain giant clouds of gas and dust - the raw materials needed to make new stars. As they collide, our sky will be filled with thousands of dazzling new white stars. It will be quite a firework display.’
‘That’s some consolation I suppose. What’s the frying scenario?’
‘Well, if the galaxies collide, but we aren’t ripped out of the sun’s orbit, the sun will eventually burn itself out.’
‘So won’t we just freeze gradually?’
‘No. That’s not how stars die. They don’t go gently.’ He hesitated then said, ‘Would you like me to explain?’
‘Oh, please do. This is all quite thrilling!’
Joe studied her face, searching for a hint of irony, but her child’s eyes were wide with delight and anticipation. He continued, his tone still dispassionate. ‘If the sun were a car, the fuel tank would now be half full. It’s going to run out of gas – hydrogen, to be precise – in about five billion years. Towards the end of its life-cycle, the sun will swell up until its radius is thirty times greater. It will be producing a thousand times more energy and it will be hell on earth. Literally. Even if Earth escapes incineration, the seas will boil dry and the atmosphere will evaporate. We’ll be toast. But it’s not all bad news.’
‘No. The sun might actually melt the frozen moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There’s a lot of water out there. Humans – if there’s any left – could relocate there.’
‘Oh, you can just imagine the estate agent’s blurb, can’t you? Finally the hyperbole would be justified! Plenty of space for growing families – out of this world!’
‘Perhaps the frozen moons are all part of God’s plan. I imagine He’d be the sort of deity who’d think ahead. See the bigger picture.’
‘I thought you said you didn’t believe in God?’
‘Nevertheless, you think he’s worth mocking. And that faith is worth mocking. But one of the functions of faith is to account for things that can’t be explained. Beauty. Truth. Goodness. Even scientists can’t explain those. And human beings don’t like unanswered questions.’
‘Which is why people like me try – and fail – to answer them. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to mock. To be honest, I find it hard to come up with an appropriate response to the extinction of all life forms. Even as a physicist, I find that hard.’
‘And as a musician?’
He turned his head sharply and regarded her. She wasn’t looking at him, but gazing up at the window again. He studied her profile with its patrician nose and stubborn chin. But there was also softness there. She resembled a monarch on a coin – an ancient coin, worn down so its details had become blurred. Eventually he said, ‘As a musician, I find it slightly easier to confront my species’ extinction. Music has a language that can at least attempt to encompass the obliteration of the universe, in the same way it can tackle the creation.’
‘Because art is bigger than the human beings that make it.’
‘That wasn’t a question, was it?’
‘No, it wasn’t. It’s a sort of Credo of mine, actually. I no longer believe in God, but I still believe in art. And,’ she added, ‘I believe in belief.’
‘You used to believe then? In God?’
‘Oh yes. I was devout.’
‘But not any more?’
‘The last time God spoke to me, he said he didn’t exist.’
‘And you believed Him?’
‘Who am I to doubt the Word of the Lord?’
He searched for a hint of amusement in her solemn brown eyes, but found none. ‘Do you miss Him? I’ve heard people say, if you abandon your religion, you’re left with a God-shaped hole in your life.’
‘Oh, my life is positively moth-eaten! There are so many bits missing now. One of them’s faith. Another is prayer. I certainly miss my little heart-to-hearts with the Almighty. The theological gossip. Maybe that’s why I end up talking to strangers in cathedrals… Do you know much about stained glass?’
‘No. Other than that I like looking at it.’
‘You know Chagall, the artist? He also designed stained glass. He said, “Every colour ought to encourage prayer. As for me, I can’t pray. I just work.” That’s what I do now. I just work.’ Her mouth was set in a grim line, her lips compressed, as if she could have said more, but had thought better of it.
Joe continued warily. ‘So if you don’t believe, why are you here?’
‘Oh, I come here a lot,’ she answered briskly. ‘It’s my second home. I drop in to study how the glass changes with the light. With the seasons. I like to watch the coloured shadows creep across the stone walls and floors. And people.’ She looked at him. ‘It’s not just the glass that’s stained. Everything the light touches is coloured. Your cheek is gilded now. With saffron light. And I doubt your eyes are that extraordinary green in natural light. The light blesses everything on which it falls,’ she announced, turning away. ‘Mullion or man.’
They both fell to silent contemplation of the window. Joe was studying the figures of Adam and Eve when his companion said, ‘I really am sorry about your ex-wife. I’m afraid I can’t pray for her – not any more – but I’ll light a candle. I’ll light one for your little girl too. A useless gesture, I know, but what else can you do when darkness encroaches?’
‘Thank you, that’s very kind. I think I’d like to bring her here.’
‘Yes. I’d like to show her this window. One day. When things have… settled down. I’ll tell her I met a stranger who lit a candle for her. And one for her mother.’
‘I’ll light one for you too. In for a penny, in for a pound… My name’s Celia, by the way. I think it’s nice to know who’s lighting candles for you, don’t you?’ She frowned and shook her head. ‘Really sorry I can’t manage a prayer though.’
‘That’s OK. My name’s Joe. And my daughter’s name is Tilly.’
|Detail of Eve in a stained glass window, Washington, D.C.|
Anxious to change the subject, Joe pointed up at the window, to the sixth light. ‘You know, I think Eve looks a bit like you.’
‘Oh dear, I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.’
‘The red hair is a nice touch. It suggests a temptress. A bit Rita Hayworth.’
‘Oh no, she was tiny. Not a carthorse like me.’
As a thought struck him, he turned to her and said, ‘Did you model for this?’
‘Yes. That’s why Eve’s as tall as Adam.’
‘Ah. I see.’
She turned to him. ‘What do you see?’
‘Your connection. I had no idea the window was so personal to you.’
‘Oh, yes. Very personal. You have no idea.’
He pointed again. ‘Do you think the inclusion of a trilobite is deliberately anachronistic?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, if you treat the Bible as historical record – and an alarming number of people do – the Earth is only six thousand years old. Archbishop Ussher worked it out in the seventeenth century. Day One took place in 4004 BC. October 23rd to be precise.’
‘The Venerable Bede had already placed it in 3952 BC, centuries before.’
‘Is that so? Newton said it all started around 4000 BC. So they were all pretty much in agreement. As well as being spectacularly wrong.’
‘How old is the earth then?’
‘Around four thousand, six hundred million years.’
‘Is that all? Some days it feels like much more.’
|"Elrathia kingii" trilobite fossil (400-500 million years old)|
He pointed to the fifth light. ‘The trilobite’s a witty touch. They were around more than five hundred million years ago. Obviously the artist isn’t one of those flat earth Creationists.’
‘Trilobites. And Adam and Eve.’ He smiled and shook his head.
She spread large, capable-looking hands, ‘Why not? The window’s telling a story. It’s not a scientific thesis.’
‘Indeed. And Eve’s story is much more gripping than the trilobite’s tale.’
‘And more human. After all, this is a window for people. It’s not there to let light in or keep rain out. Its sole purpose is to make people look at it and think. It’s an aid to contemplation – although I’ve actually seen quite a few people stand here and weep. Brits do it discreetly, of course, but I’ve seen Italians sob. Quite unmanned. Stained glass is a funny thing. Powerful. In the Middle Ages glass was believed to have healing properties.’
‘I can sort of understand that. I collect sea glass. No idea why. When I was a boy I used to think it had magical properties.’
‘Coloured glass does! No other medium allows you to paint with light. In painting, the canvas and the paints are the material. But a stained glass artist works with light. That’s what produces the colours. The glass is only the medium through which the light passes... I think it is a form of magic. Almost. What other art form changes constantly, second by second, adapting to the turning of the Earth, like a kaleidoscope?’
He thought it was probably just the effect of the multi-coloured beams playing on her pale face that seemed to make her eyes burn and her freckled cheeks flush, but the thought still came to him, unbidden, inappropriate, impertinent. This is a passionate woman. Passionate and lonely.
Embarrassed by his insight, Joe turned away and faced the Creation again, this time unseeing. After a moment, he cleared his throat and, with elaborate casualness, said, ‘Do you know who designed this window?’
‘Yes, I do... Celia Reid. That’s me.’ Joe wheeled round and stared. ‘I designed it. And I made it.’ She lifted her face to the coloured light. ‘But it took me a lot longer than six days…'
|Andromeda captured by Nasa's Swift Satellite telescope|