Then – explosions, expansion, radiation, swirling gases, ferocious winds, veils of pinpricks of light, catastrophic gravitational collapses, scorching heat, thermonuclear reactions, stellar alchemy, supernova explosions, freezing ice, contraction and spectacular collisions. A tiny planet hurtled past through the blackness. Blue – flecked with white – placid and tranquil – a hint of brown and green. Life!
A billion or so years later the early morning silence that hung in the dimly lit corridors of the maternity ward was shattered. A newborn baby boy sucked air into its tiny, delicate lungs and screamed. A nurse, reading in the soft glow from a lamp at the main desk, look down the corridor towards the source of the commotion and smiled. The miracle of new life never diminished in its wonder she thought, before returning to her book.
The room was brightly lit with white light. A woman lay on her back, on starched sheets, panting and drenched in sweat. Her gown was pulled up above her waist, and a bloodied and slimy bundle rested on her stomach as the final link to the warmth and safety of the womb was severed. Total exhaustion was replaced with overwhelming joy with the realisation that the ordeal was over and as the magnitude of the event became apparent. Her face radiated utter fulfillment through the damp hair that clung to her face and shoulders.
The midwife wrapped the wrinkled little body in warm cloth and then handed the precious gift back to the mother so a unique bond could form as the helpless baby boy drew strength from an offered breast. The midwife paused at the door, as she retreated from the room, to glance back at the overjoyed couple looking proudly down at their new possession. Utterly dependent, the newborn, contentedly, settled into its new world with its face screwed up and its black eyes blinking in the glare of the bright lights.
A nurse stood by the wall quietly watching the events unfold. She turned and looked, with vague interest, out through the venetian blinds. The street, outside the small hospital, was splashed in light from a nearby street lamp and was deserted. Her mind wandered, and she deliberated, briefly, on what she would cook for her breakfast – kippers perhaps.
She slipped quietly from the room. The family, huddled around the hospital bed, was unaware of her departure.
The “Dopplerfied” scream of a jet-fighter plane echoed between the barren, windswept hills as it hugged the contours of the shallow pass and sped down the tussocky slopes towards the bay.
A young man sat huddled in a muddy trench blowing warm air into his cupped, frozen hands. He replaced his gloves and slapped his arms in an attempt to restore the flow of warm blood through his cold, aching body.
He followed the flight of the plane in awe. It was sleek, swift and deadly – a creature of intimidating beauty – and he was not surprised when he saw a flash of light under its wings and a long, black, pencil-shaped object streaked towards the harbour leaving a thin trail of white smoke. The plane abruptly turned and rose while the missile, within seconds, had penetrated the watery surface and sent a plume of white water, exploding, upwards into the air. The young man waited, expectantly, for the sound of the explosion, and when it finally came he turned and searched the sky for the jet-fighter, but it had already disappeared, safely, over the ridge.
The young man shivered, so he slapped and hugged his body again. He watched a group of small, black objects on the water making their way slowly towards a rocky beach. One altered its course to avoid the turbulent patch of water where the missile had struck. He could see movement in each of the landing craft. They had been discharged from a large ship that lay at anchor several hundred metres from the shore. Its grey paint work blended, drably, with the cold, stark environment.
As the young man surveyed the activities, taking place on the bay below him, his mind was
drawn back to his homeland. Warm summer afternoons, soft sunlight, the gentle chink of Wedgwood at garden tea parties, good friends, laughter and leisurely conversations; it all seemed another life away compared with the nightmare he was presently forced to endure. He thought of his fiancé and her tearful face on the morning of his departure down at Southampton Dock. It had been a heart wrenching farewell, but now there were only a handful of long, miserable days remaining before she would be in his arms again.
This thought cheered him, and he watched the return of the fighter plane with more enthusiasm. It screamed down the slope, again, towards the bay and the helpless specks in the water. For a moment he was saddened by their, seemingly, pathetic vulnerability. They didn’t stand a chance.
He remembered a day, filled with powerful emotion, when he had come across some of the prisoners that had been captured. He had expected to hate and despise the rows of pale and expressionless faces but some limited conversation had shamefully shocked him into realising that they were only frightened young men, confused and disorientated. They were essentially just like him only they spoke a different language. Something, unexplainable, made him hope that the missiles would continue to miss their targets.
He concentrated on the plane, and predictably the flash of light came as another missile exploded from its wing. This time the pilot had more success, and the cylinder penetrated the water much closer to the group. The exploding sea engulfed one of the launches, and it disappeared into the churning water. The rest scattered like tormented ants. It was then the young man noticed a flash at the bow of the ship. Another missile began its, predetermined, flight. It searched for the jet-fighter and began its pursuit, drawn by the heat of the engine exhaust. A deadly game of “cat and mouse” began with all the odds in the “cat’s” favour. The plane rolled and turned sharply, desperate in its attempts to rid itself of the unrelenting pursuer. Then it dipped and dropped out of sight behind the hills in the distance. Suddenly, the hills and the low grey clouds were lit up by a blinding flash, and a huge ball of smoke billowed up into the sky.
The young man felt nauseous. The suddenness and swiftness of death shocked him. He noticed he was shaking again, although now it was mainly from fear. He longed to be far away from the wretched island. Away from the cold, the hunger and the perpetual fear. The shabby collection of ramshackle houses and sheds below him, at the edge of the bay, were of no interest to him. He had not even heard of the place before he had been enlisted. So why they were here, he thought, defending a cluster of bleak islands, seemingly, lost in an endless ocean – constantly pounded by green seas and buffeted by low, scudding squalls? They could have the place – whoever they were – whatever their reason. The journey home in a few days could not come soon enough. He bent over and vomited, violently, into the mud.
The repetitive thud of blades sweeping the air startled him. He turned to see a helicopter, dark and menacing, hovering just above the ridge behind him. Panic seized his being. Instinctively, he reached for his gun in a pitiful, futile act of self defence. No sooner had he raised it to his shoulder when he was slammed against the wall of the trench, pain searing through his body, his flesh tearing. He slumped into the swill of mud and vomit in the bottom of the trench – frightened, cold and wet – alone.
People gathered in the tiled-wall, tomblike enclosure. Most were smartly dressed. The men wore suits and long heavy coats – the women, fashionable, in expensive, executive style outfits. Some were, contentedly, reading the evening paper while others peered, nervously, along the shining rails that disappeared into the dark gloom, anxiously anticipating the rumble and faint breeze on their cheeks that hinted of an approaching train.
They shared the dusty, concrete platform with an old man, sitting with his back to a graffitied wall and staring straight in front of him at nothing in particular. His shabby appearance was in stark contrast to the suits and coats. Long, dark hair that was matted and tangled was streaked with grey and covered a brown face that looked tired and worn. A beard of similar texture fell down over a tatty, brown coat worn through at the elbows and torn at the right shoulder. A piece of string held up his baggy, black pants. Unlike the commuters he instead appeared a permanent fixture in this particular place. A sense of belonging – as though he had always been there and always would. The people stepped over and around him not wanting to know – not wanting to be involved. Anyway, really he wasn’t even there – just another piece of platform furniture. One day he would go away. It would be easier that way. The to and fro of rattling, screeching trains through the station meant nothing to him. He had come from nowhere and was going nowhere. He had no-one to see. And the people looked obediently away.
The atmosphere, within the cauldron, began to change. Patient anticipation turned to tension, frustration and agitation. The train was delayed. People began glancing at their watches.
Suddenly, the public address system crackled into life and a loud, static message echoed around the underground void. “This is your Bakerloo Line information service,” an anonymous voice drawled, monotonously, “Due to a person under a train at Baker Street, there will be no service beyond Baker Street. For those people going further than Baker Street, it is advised that you…”
The voice droned on but the people standing on the platform had already ceased paying attention to the information. There was to be no train. They fidgeted and became restless. Some swore softly to themselves. Others turned and headed quickly for the stairs and escalators. Their routines had been ruined. Their lives had been, temporarily, placed in turmoil. They were, inconveniently, forced into making other plans and arrangements. Damn that person!
Above the grime of the London Underground the streets were filled with lights, people and decorations. Toy, red-cheeked Santa Clauses peered out through shop windows at the bustling passers-by, who were bracing themselves against an icy, Arctic blast. They pulled their coats and scarves tighter around their bodies as they struggled with their heavy loads of shopping. Their bags were overflowing with gifts and presents which would bring joy and laughter into their busy lives. Signs, wishing people a merry and happy Christmas, abounded.
For one young man though, the signs had not been enough.
There was promise of “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men”, but this proclamation had appeared to the young man as trite and futile.
High above the crowded streets, in a ribbon of light near the top of an office tower block, the massive profits made by “The Cuddly Toy Company“, due to a successful marketing campaign of a new soft-toy range, “Santa’s Little Helpers“, were being toasted by directors and other assorted figures. Their glasses were charged, their hands were raised and they clapped each other, enthusiastically, on the back.
But, for one young man, this euphoria had not been felt down on the streets. The magic, being temporarily woven by an approaching Christmas, had provided little consolation and enchantment to his disfigurement and shattered life. In one brief moment the spell was broken.
Somewhere, in a lonely, dark corner of the universe, the small planet slipped silently past.
And maybe someone was watching…