Parallel Lives is published in paperback and as an eBook
Friday, 19 April 2013
parallel Lives chapter 86
The order of things went unchallenged after the stop for fuel and food. Jack had loaded John back into his car and the other three had returned to the seats they had arrived in; the possibility that they could have rotated never came up. Jack was leading again, although he would have preferred a passenger capable of reading a map instead of John for this leg. Although he knew the area quite well, both from his youth staying at the various resorts along the North Devon coastline and from recent years when he had taken to walking the North and South Devon coastal footpaths for his holidays, the location he was looking for was quite remote and would probably present a challenge in the daylight without the bad weather closing in.
The sprinkling of snow darting across his headlights got Jack thinking: somehow it had crossed into December without him noticing, and instead of looking for Christmas presents for the kids, he and Karen were driving around the country mixed up in some sort of mumbo-jumbo. Quite where it would lead, he didn’t know. None of them had a plan beyond his idea of taking John to the place he recalled earliest, which judging by John’s current disposition was a gesture likely to be missed by him.
Looking back into the rear view mirror, Jack could see the hire car following him, not allowing itself to fall too far behind. As he looked ahead again, squinting to read a road sign that had just hove into view, the thought that truly the blind were leading the blind tonight flashed into his head.
Karen was flicking through the road atlas supplied with the hire car, trying to find the beach Jack had mentioned, with no luck. She felt pleased that she had managed to identify exactly where they were though, no mean feat given it was barely an ‘A’ road. She knew roughly the beach Jack meant, they had passed by that way twice on recent walking holidays, but Jack knew it better as he tended to rove more, Karen being reluctant to take the kids too close to the cliffs.
Michael was becoming increasingly agitated over the weather, grumbling every time the snow fell perceptively harder or whenever the wind caught the side of the car. He didn’t say to the other two but he doubted whether there was any benefit to John by taking him to this beach, given his current state of mind. While Michael didn’t have a coherent plan to play out, this diversion seemed a good time filler except for the complication of the weather. He looked to his left, to see if Alan had any views on the subject, but was rewarded with the sight of the HSE man, head full back, mouth wide open, asleep. He called back to Karen.
‘How far?’ Karen pursed her lips as she worked out a guesstimate.
‘Probably five, maybe six miles. I’m assuming I know where this beach is, its not listed in this atlas. If its where I think it is then there will be a right turn about half a mile before it,’ she replied, looking out at the fading image of the car ahead. She took the opportunity to ask a question she didn’t get the chance to ask in the café.
‘You know you said I may not be married to Jack in other universes, you made it sound almost automatic.’ Michael looked back swiftly before returning his gaze to the road ahead.
‘Its an assumption, but probably not an unreasonable one from what I know of you two. Jack’s from a different part of the country and was moving around with the army when you met. Unlike a local lad who you could spark off against dozens of times a year, every year, someone like Jack has to be at the right place at the right time on a limited number of occasions before he moves on. For that to happen consistently time and again in multiple universes would indicate there was more than mere chance and choice at play, arranged marriages for example. Across the broad spectrum of parallel universes that you may have analogues in, John is a more likely spouse. Then again, you may not know him in any other universe at all, with or without Jack.’ Karen felt a cold shiver run the length of her spine at this comment.
‘I know this sounds corny,’ she began, recalling the meeting with John nearly three weeks earlier, ‘but when John called for Jack just after the accident, despite my never having met him before, I felt I knew him. I didn’t think anything of it until today when he got out of your car in Salford, when I realised who this John Staples guy was,’ she blurted. Michael thought about this for a few seconds.
‘We know John is going through similar experiences in other universes, more or less in parallel. It’s probable that he had made the same visit to one of your analogues prior to his visit in this universe. If that visit had gone badly, if he had collapsed or perhaps your analogue had felt irrationally frightened of this man then her adrenaline levels may have raised enough to send a warning to you,’ he explained. ‘Or,’ he continued, ‘you may be on the high end of level two.’ Karen looked at the rear of Michael’s head suddenly, her perusal of the atlas forgotten.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked.
‘I know I didn’t explain this in any great detail, but the groupings are not as discrete as they sound. We think some level two candidates are closer to level three than most, you might be one of them.’ Michael felt he had explained as much as he could without digging deeply into the probability theory needed to explain more fully the odds of her knowing John in other universes and of her being on the high side of level two, and tried to return his full attention to the road ahead. Karen felt as disinclined to pursue the previous subject as Michael was, however she wasn’t quite finished.
‘You mentioned a “nightmare scenario” back there, but didn’t explain what it meant,’ she said, putting the atlas to one side. Michael had wondered whether he would be asked about that one.
‘We think that what we are doing is likely to be mirrored in other universes, more or less at the same time. The nightmare scenario is where the subject consistently drops into universes where his analogue is being sent to other universes to find the same situation. There is what we call a “partial remedy” to this problem, but John isn’t the vehicle for it. Assuming we have a willing volunteer we use him as an intelligence interchange medium, on the understanding that our analogues in the other universes will supply their man with information. Its very hypothetical and difficult to police; trust beyond the reaches of the universe is a tricky subject, don’t you agree?’ he asked. Karen couldn’t answer that one, she honestly had never had occasion to give it any thought.
‘He’s indicating,’ she said, glad to not have to answer the question. Alan, probably roused by the interchange, sat up and rubbed his eyes.
‘Is this it?’ he asked.
Jack swung down the narrow ‘B’ road, the tarmac waving in and out at the edges, no lines indicating the centre or extremities. Turning on to main beam he was rewarded with darts of white light as the snow flooded down, the route ahead clearly untouched since the snow had begun to fall. In the darkness, over the low cut hedges, a blurred light flickered, turning on and off. A lighthouse, wondered Jack, trying to remember if there were any automatic ones in the area.
Turning a bend, Jack slid to a halt, his locked tyres compressing the virgin snow, the rear end of his car twitching. Checking his mirror he saw Michael’s car rounding the bend cautiously, slowing down in plenty of time. Ahead was the sea, a sheer drop beyond the edge of the road, protected by a motorway style crash barrier, its edge-on “W” shape supported on concrete vertical posts. To his left the road carried on down to the beach, itself speckled with snow valiantly trying to maintain a foothold in its most unlikely location. The static caravans and paraphernalia associated with summer holidays was long gone, the road was probably just an access road for the jet ski community these days. At the present it was a treacherous looking road, sloping steeply down to the beach, curving thirty degrees halfway down.
Checking that Michael had stayed clear, Jack reversed a fraction before manoeuvring his car to a position that allowed it to be parked clear of the road. To the side of the road was a large, roughly delineated parking area, presumably where equipment would be off-loaded from vans and lorries before being taken down to the beach by those with four wheel drive vehicles. Jack drove to a corner of the area, reversing up the furthermost edge and then he waited while Michael parallel parked alongside.
John showed recognition, seemed for the first time in over two hours to be aware of his surroundings, which amazed Jack given the featureless nature of the area. Without speaking John unbuckled his belt, opened his door and stepped out, catching Jack by surprise. Jack leapt out of his own seat, braving the stiff winter wind, feeling the snow sting his face and soak his hair. Reaching back into his car he grabbed his coat and, realising with unwarranted shame they hadn’t provided one for John, determined to surrender it up to his maintenance man, who had started to walk slowly towards the edge, seemingly impervious to the elements.
Michael, Alan and Karen watched silently from their car as John walked to the edge of the crash barrier, followed almost comically by Jack slipping on the white surface, his hair whipping to and fro on his head. All had coats of some description in the hire car, although none were really suited to this weather having set off that morning for an inquest in a cold but sunny Manchester. Karen broke the silence.
‘Do we need to join them?’ It seemed a reasonable question. Alan was quite sure he knew the answer.
‘I doubt it, I’m sure they’ll both get fed up of the cold soon enough,’ he suggested, ‘let John have his walk. I can wait to stretch my legs.’ Karen was in general agreement but felt she ought to take some of the responsibility off Jack, it was clear that John was driving the process out there. As she watched, the snow increased and all she could see was a blurred outline where the two men were.
The wind was howling now, gusting on and off shore rapidly, swirling the snow into mini cyclones. Jack had placed his coat around John and had been rewarded with a smile, probably the first in his memory.
‘I remember it like yesterday,’ shouted John, looking out over the beach. He pointed down to his left. ‘Over there, that’s where the caravan was, and over here,’ he said, sweeping his arm around to the right, ‘there were some others. I made a friend there, not a holidaymaker but an older lad, twenties I think. Probably a beach bum, but he seemed to like my company. I didn’t make friends easily then; don’t now,’ he said.
In the background Jack could hear a rhythmic, throbbing sound; air/sea rescue, he thought. Probably busy on nights like this, fools messing around whatever the time of year. Another sound caught his attention, shouting, doors closing, probably Karen telling him to come back in, not surprising really given the conditions. The cold was starting to bite now, his ears were numb and it was only because he had his hands thrust deep into his pockets that stopped them joining his ears.
Turning, he peered, trying to see the cars; but the driving snow prevented a clear view of anything. He could hear them, vaguely, possibly Karen, the pitch usually unmistakable to his ears. The air/sea rescue must be closer than he thought; its clattering sound was now drowning out all other sounds. Spinning back to sea, where he expected to see a bright yellow form judging by the proximity of the sound, he was greeted by a black and green mass skimming over his head, tail rotors slicing through the disturbed snow laden air the main rotors were producing. Looking down to his level Jack saw the John had climbed over the crash barrier, dropping Jack’s jacket on the road side of it.
‘Bloody hell,’ he shouted over the howling wind, aware that nobody, including John, would hear him, ‘what are you playing at?’ Jack walked the two steps to the barrier and, placing one hand on the freezing steel, slipped his right leg over, reaching for John who was stood motionless facing the ocean on the edge of the cliff. Too far, he had to swing his other leg over and reach out further to grab John’s arm. John swung around, pulling his arm away, reproaching Jack with a withering look.
‘Don’t interfere Jack, this is meant to be,’ he shouted, his words whipping away in the wind, 'they’ll never let me be, you know that.’ Jack grabbed John’s arm again, lower, nearer the wrist, making a better grip. John struggled, raising his arm in an attempt to shake Jack off, but Jack hung in there while retaining his grip on the barrier as best he could. Then he spun around as he heard his name being called.
Parallel Lives is published in paperback and as an eBook
Copyright Ray Sullivan 2011
The characters, places and events described in this novel are fictitious and any resemblance to persons, places or events, past or present, is coincidence. All rights reserved
Parallel Lives is published in paperback and as an eBook