The Traveller

Ever wish you could go back and start again?

Irving woke suddenly. His first instinct was to sit up but he found he was already propped up with pillows behind him. There were two figures at the foot of the bed. He couldn’t tell who they were; he didn’t recognise either of them. He realised, furthermore, that he’d no idea where he was. This was not his own bed, certainly not his own room. There was an oxygen cylinder beside him and an intravenous pole on his other side, a tube from which was attached to his arm, delivering some colourless liquid into it. And what an arm! Not his own. He raised both: skin and bone, fingers like arthritic spindles. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He was 49, for God’s sake!

‘Dad?’ one of the figures said. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Dad?’ Irving repeated with a weak, quaking voice that was also not his own. ‘I’m not your dad. I don’t even know who you are.’

‘It’s me, dad. Mark.’

Mark was his son’s name all right, but Mark was only 24, not like this imposter who was himself in his forties. ‘No,’ Irving growled, tugging at the tube attached to the valve in his arm, and wincing at every painful movement.

‘Grandad, best not,’ said the second stranger, reaching towards him.

Grandad? What were these two up to? His grandson, his daughter Emma’s boy, was only just turned 3. ‘I don’t know who you are,’ he growled, ‘but I’m not your grandad.’

The pair exchanged glances. Irving ignored them, hoping they’d grow tired of their game and go away and bother someone else. Instead he took in the room around him. With a jolt he realised where he was. This was the hospice, where his own father had spent his final days a few years earlier. Suddenly, something about this made sense; he was here for his own last days, his mind was failing him. Perhaps it had already; the last 30 years wiped from his memory. In that case, the strangers might be who they claimed to be. Though it was still hard to believe that this bearded giant was the little blond boy he looked after at weekends.

‘Davey?’ he asked cautiously.

‘Yes, grandad. It’s me.’ He seemed pleased to have been recognised.

‘Where… ‘ Irving began. ‘Where’s your mother?’

Davey looked at his uncle again, unsure of how to respond. ‘He doesn’t remember,’ he said.

It was true: Irving didn’t remember, but he was sufficiently aware that something bad must have happened. He felt the room turn and his consciousness begin to drift. He gave into it and allowed himself to slip into the dark.

When he woke again, there was someone else in the room. ‘It will be tonight,’ they were saying. ‘If you like, we could increase the dose a little, make it easier for him.’

‘No,’ Irving shouted, ‘Not yet. I don’t belong here. I want to leave,’ but the sound that came from his mouth sounded nothing like the words in his head. They were more like a series of desperate groans, and before he lost consciousness for the last time, he heard his son say that it would be for the best.

* * * * *

Irving reasoned that he, like everyone else, was a time traveller. Everyone was travelling into an unknown future at the rate of one second per second. The direction of travel was always forward, or at least it appeared to be. There was no-one who travelled in the opposite direction, from present to past, not even at the same stealthy pace. Irving, however, had begun to entertain the possibility that it need not be so. If travel was possible in one direction, into a future that until it was reached had no actual existence, then movement back into a past that had demonstrably existed up to only a second earlier seemed more than a viable proposition. A visit to a known destination was much more of a sure thing than a mystery tour to somewhere that as yet had no didn’t exist. He spent many hours calculating how to reverse the direction of travel at a mere second at a time. He was not over ambitious. He did not seek to move in millennia or even decades like the time travellers of science fiction; he knew, from the everyday journeys of everyday people, like himself, that it was best to take things slowly; to work first with seconds and to build slowly and gradually to hours and then days.

The work progressed satisfactorily until matters came to a head with a greater sense of urgency the day after the department’s mid-summer party. He had not intended to drink quite so much, but after the award of a generous grant as a result of a successful research bid, everyone was in celebratory mood. The alcohol flowed more freely than was usual at these events. He eventually took a taxi home and after a pint or so of water, turned in.

It was the following morning that he hit the child. He just hadn’t seen her coming, darting out from between parked cars. Irving’s reflexes were slower than he anticipated; the result of the previous night’s alcohol consumption, and despite the fact that every aspect of the collision, every movement of the child’s body, jerking mid-air like a lifeless marionette, took place over several elongated seconds. Eventually she landed with a cracking thump on the side of the road while Irving sat motionless behind the wheel. He knew then, as time began to resume its normal flow that he would take advantage of its distortion and press backwards through it, leaving behind the accident one second at a time into the immediate past and beyond, to a time before he had hit the girl. On arrival at a time when the strands of time that had led to this point had unravelled, he would relive the last few hours so that they did not result in a dead child at the side of the road. He would not take the fateful car journey and the girl would live again. These thoughts were instantaneous; he was already moving, letting time peel away, first in slow seconds and then accelerating so that he felt himself moving rapidly. He began to lose consciousness, trusting in time itself and in his own calculations to propel him safely to a new beginning.

* * * * *

He woke suddenly. His first instinct was to sit up but he found he was already propped up by pillows behind him. There were, he could make out, two figures at the foot of the bed in which he found himself.

 

 

 

Conspiracy theories, Covid and Hanlon’s Razor

‘Three great forces rule the world: stupidity, fear and greed’ (attributed to Einstein).

Former UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, shows a colleague how to correctly apply a face covering.

The principle of Hanlon’s razor tells us we shouldnever attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ Likewise, we should never attribute to conspiracy that which is more adequately explained by incompetence.

I don’t subscribe as a rule to a conspiracy theories. They usually entail too many agents coordinating too many activities that need to be kept secret from too many others. I don’t have sufficient faith in people’s abilities to accomplish anything as complex as this. I’m far more convinced that stupidity and after-the-fact attempts to hush-up and explain away incompetence more than adequately explain what might seem to be conspiracies.

And so to the UK government’s recent handling on pandemic restrictions. Has it been a conspiracy to control the little people (of which I’m one) or a bumbling from one measure to another, listening to the advice of SAGE scientists, a limited number of whom are epidemiologists or virologists (these are outnumbered by behavioural scientists and modellers) and dithering over the on-off lifting of restrictions?

The latter seems more likely. And yet politicians, being part of the elite, or indeed the elite personified, continue to impose restrictions on the masses that they consider have no application to themselves. It is easy to see how some feel there is a conspiracy afoot.

Some facts and figures to consider:

  • At the time of writing, 84% of the UK’s adult population has had at least one dose of the vaccine.
  • 63% have had two doses.
  • Vaccinations are available to everyone 18 years and over (from Gov.UK, 28th June 2021).

France has 28% of its population fully vaccinated. France is in the process of lifting all restrictions (by 9th July.)  Similarly, 42 US states have now declared themselves ‘fully reopened’.

With 60% of its adult population doubly vaccinated, the UK has still to embark on lifting remaining restrictions.

You are advised not to dance, sing or hug at weddings. Venues that don’t take steps to prevent these can be fined.

Hugging is fine if you are Health Minister and you are having an affair with your aide.

  • Scientific studies suggest that masks are not effective in preventing the spread of Covid-19 (see here, here and here). 
  • Unless medically exempt, you can be fined for not wearing a mask in indoor public spaces.
  • Mask wearing and social distancing are required even if you have had two vaccines. Unless you’re a world leader attending the G7 summit.

Controlled mass events, allowed as experiments, have not led to any significant increases in Covid infections.

Theatres, nightclubs and other venues are still not allowed to open.

  • You must quarantine at your own expense if returning from an amber designated country.
  • You do not need to quarantine on entering the UK if you are a world leader attending the G7 summit. You do not need quarantine on return to your own country, even if you and your entourage have caused a 2,450% increase in Covid infections in the area where the summit is held. 
  • You do not need to quarantine or self-isolate on entering the UK if you are a Eufa official or ‘VIP’ attending the final stages of the Euros at Wembley Stadium.

Either the UK has reached the point where Covid-19 restrictions need not be adhered to, or it hasn’t. Whichever it is, the remaining rules need to be applied equitably; the same across the board. They are not when the elite do not have to comply with the same legal requirements as the little people. One set of rules for them and another for everyone else is guaranteed to produce resentment and unrest. It leads to people taking the law into their own hands.

The evidence demonstrates that, thanks to a 83.3% uptake of the vaccine, Covid-19 is under control in the UK. While there are new infections, they are not proving to be as lethal as earlier strains of the virus; they are not overwhelming the NHS. If the rules do not apply to fornicating ministers, cavorting politicians and football’s VIPs, they do not apply to any of us.

Immortality

I am immortal.

My immortality is conditional;

It has to be protected.

A fatal accident could deprive me of it,

Or an illness; a virus even.

But if I can avoid these, by taking all necessary precautions,

I will live forever.

Spend my life in my house,

Avoiding contact with other people,

Wearing a mask, vaccinating.

It might not be much of a life, but if it guarantees eternal life,

I willingly surrender responsibility for my own health.

This is what the government tells me;

If I do all of these things, I won’t die.

And I believe them.

 

I am immortal.

My immortality is conditional;

It depends on believing the right things,

And having righteousness imputed from on High.

My church tells me so;

It is what the Bible teaches.

And I believe them.

It might not be much of a life, but if it guarantees eternal life,

I willingly sacrifice my integrity on the altar of wishful thinking.

 

I am not immortal.

I will die. I will die of something,

Be it one of the innumerable viruses human beings are prey to,

An infection, cancer, heart attack, accident.

This is a fact.

 

In a little over a hundred years,

Every person alive today, the babies born last night,

Will be dead.

Every one.

Like those who have gone before.

 

Not one person living today was alive in 1900;

They are gone. Every one of them.

They are not in heaven, nor in hell.

They are not lying in the ground awaiting resurrection.

They are gone.

 

Nothing I do, nothing you do, can prevent it;

No magic formula, no amount of masking up, no perpetual hiding from life,

Will save you from death.

Come to terms with it;

Death is inevitable.

Defer it as long as you can, by all means,

But don’t think it isn’t out to get you.

 

You will not survive your death.

There is nothing on the other side because there is no other side;

No eternal life, no immortality.

Only arrested development allows you to think otherwise.

 

Live now.

Epilogue

Friends and family offered Jack their condolences. He and Martha had been together for forty-one years and her passing wrenched Jack from the life of comfort and security that had developed over their time together. More than half of him had died along with his wife, when he had always assumed he would be the first to go. He was the older by two years and statistically, he knew, the life expectancy of the male was lower. Maybe, he thought, living with him had taken its toll on Martha, carrying her off earlier than either of them expected. 57 wasn’t old these days.

He stood at the back of the crematorium in a daze, which was how he had been for the last week, shaking hands with all the well-intentioned relatives and acquaintances. They meant well, but their platitudes rang hollow, not because they weren’t sincere but because that was how Jack felt: hollow. Their words and gestures rattled around the empty space inside him without touching the sides, and then faded away into nothingness. ‘Good of you to come,’ he responded, the same to everyone; automatic pilot. ‘Yes, thank you. Good of you to come,’ until Alice, his sister-in-law, reached the front of the line. Where had she been when Martha had been in the hospice? he found himself thinking. Maybe she wasn’t his sister-in-law, he thought, giving her the benefit of the doubt – she’d been married to Martha’s brother George – but all the same, she was family. She should’ve put in an appearance.

‘God bless you,’ said Alice.

‘Thank you. Good of …’ He stopped, looking down at the little woman in black whose hand he held. She looked awkwardly over her shoulder to those in the line behind her who looked down at their shoes or out of the window.

‘God bless you?’ said Jack. ‘For Pete’s sake, Alice, it was a humanist service. God wasn’t invited. Martha was quite specific about that.’ And suddenly there was something there inside him after all, an echo of the past, another abandonment.

‘I thought…’ began Alice, ‘I only meant…’

‘Yes, I know what you meant,’ said Jack, ‘and I thank you for it, but not in the way you think.’ He finally let go of her hand and she moved off quickly, coughing nervously.

‘My condolences,’ said the next embarrassed mourner, shuffling forward and offering his hand. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘Don’t be,’ said Jack, his inner strength growing by the second. ‘Martha and I had a good life together. Well, I know I did. But you know something? This isn’t just the aftermath of something that happened once. I am not a footnote to… some previous life.

The man – a distant uncle perhaps – looked aghast.

‘And neither are you,’ said Jack. ‘Neither is anybody.’ His voice rose uncomfortably as he took to addressing all of those who milled around or waited in line. ‘So don’t come and join me for the funeral tea at Greystones, because I won’t be there. I’ll be out discovering what comes next. And that’s what you should be doing too. So get out there… and live!’

There were tuts and gasps all round and Alice spluttered, ‘Well, really!’ but Jack didn’t hear any it. He was already on his way out, jumping into his nephew’s SAAB and giving him directions for the Outrageous night club.

Lessons from Life 12: Purpose

A few years ago I got into a ‘discussion’ with a Catholic priest who had said on his blog that there is no purpose in life without God (meaning of course his own particular brand of that particular fantasy.) I argued the opposite: that while some people found purpose wasting their lives worshipping and serving an imaginary being, others found purpose in a wide range of far more worthwhile concerns and activities.

Purpose need not be cosmic in scale nor equate with big, ambitious projects, like saving the world or other people’s souls. A purpose can be modest and parochial; it has only to be meaningful to you. I pointed out to my deluded correspondent that he, like everyone else, frequently had purposes other than a delusional pursuit of God: short term purposes like visiting the store, supporting a sports team, cultivating a garden, writing a blog…

Several scientific studies in recent years have come to the conclusion that having a purpose in life increases one’s chances of living longer. There is a clear correlation between the two. This doesn’t mean adopting a random, makeshift purpose is going to increase your chances of living longer; the purpose needs to be worked out for its own sake, and to be genuine and heartfelt. The potential to live longer is a bonus (good genes and a healthy lifestyle play their part too, of course.)

As for me, as you weren’t asking, my purpose is to enjoy life and to help others, as far as I’m able, to enjoy theirs; to enjoy my relationship with Dennis (having taken so long to be my true self!); to care for my children and grandchildren; to be with friends; and simply to be, here and now. Whether these will help me live to a ripe old age or not, I really don’t care. They give my life meaning and make it feel worthwhile, and that’s all that matters. No God necessary.

What I learnt in Sunday School

I was expelled from Sunday School when I was 8.

My parents had moved from one side of town to the other and I had likewise changed Sunday Schools. Neither my mum nor dad was a church-goer. I suspect I was packed off to Sunday School each week to give them both an hour’s break from at least one of their offspring.

I quite liked my original Sunday School. It was run by two ladies who seemed positively ancient, Victorian refugees in the Swinging Sixties (not that there was much swinging in the northern English town in which I lived.) They had us sing a lot of songs about Jesus and we stuck pictures of him in an exercise book. These two activities were acceptable in my sight, not because of their Jesus content but because I rather liked singing and sticking things in books.

The new Sunday School had none of these moderately pleasurable activities. Instead, it focused, week after week, on hammering home to little groups of 7 and 8 year olds that Jesus had died for them on a cross and had then come back to life. This, an earnest young woman or frightening older man would tell us, was for real. Now, while I watched Doctor Who on TV (the original) and read Superman comics, I was under no illusion that these were in any way real. I knew they weren’t, and I also knew that the equally far-fetched Jesus story was also made-up. And it wasn’t anywhere near as good.

Despite what the earnest young woman and the older man told us, my undeveloped 8 year old brain just couldn’t accept the weird story of a man who came back to life to save me from something they were calling ‘sin’. Sin, they explained, was all the bad things I’d done that upset God. Now, if I was honest, I did occasionally do things that upset my mum – I once peed up against the wall in the back lane and that upset her a lot – but I couldn’t really see how anything I did could upset God so much he’d need to send his son to die on a cross ‘in my place’. None of it made any sense.

I took to asking the earnest young woman questions about it, not out of a need to know, as I recall, but out of mischief; I seemed to know intuitively that she wouldn’t know the answers. Why did God get upset? How did Jesus dying make him happy again? What had it anything to do with me when it all such a long time ago? (I knew it was a very long time ago because we’d learnt all about the Romans in real school.) 

Sometimes the young woman would ignore my questions. Other times she would attempt an answer, but these made so little sense that I took to behaving very badly, disrupting the little group whenever I could with silly horse play. She retaliated, eventually, by bringing in the frightening older man to tell me off. To no avail. I still couldn’t take any of it seriously, and continued to play up.

Before long, my parents received a letter in the post, informing them it would be better if I didn’t attend Sunday School any more. They seemed disappointed – they’d be losing their hour’s peace – but not particularly surprised.

The point of my telling this story is that I wish I had listened to my 8 year old self. He seemed to know instinctively that all this Jesus talk – this Christian ideology – was nonsensical. I didn’t listen, however, and ended up, after joining a particularly evangelical YMCA in my teens, falling for it hook, line and sinker. I seem to remember that a sexy young American evangelist played a part in my conversion. (Plus, he had stickers! See above.)

Evangelicalism consumed my life from that point on, influencing crucial life choices and leading me to suppress who I really was. It would take me thirty years to break the chains and escape. 

Lessons from Life 11: People first

I have learnt over the course of my life to reject ideologies and ‘principles’ that take precedence over people. Political, epistemological and religious ideologies that are only interested in their own perpetuation and not about improving the lot of the maximum number of individuals have no intrinsic value. Consequently, and as Paul Simon once put it, I stand alone without beliefs. Largely so, anyway, though of course no one is entirely without belief; what I mean is that I don’t subscribe to any particular ideology.

While politically left of centre, I can’t honestly say I’m a socialist, never mind a communist. Those packages don’t interest me; they have caused, in their own way, too much damage for those they claim to champion. I don’t stand to the right either. As a slogan that was around in my formative years said, society is about ‘people, not profits’. And there is such a thing as society, despite Margaret Thatcher’s disastrous declaration that there isn’t.

Similarly, and in spite of its claims, Christianity does not put people first. They come a long way behind the ideology’s central preoccupations: defending indefensible doctrine, preserving the honour of imaginary beings and, impossibly, having a ‘relationship’ with them. As Richard Dawkins first pointed out in his 1991 essay, ‘Viruses of the Mind’, religion behaves like a contagion that is only interested in spreading itself. It has a willing and effective transmission system in those already infected and has no time for those in whom a new infection doesn’t take. As it has done from the beginning, those who suffer from the virus immediately take to demonising those who are able to resist it. Religion, despite its fine talk about loving neighbours, always creates division and strife: Us and Them, them being the lost, the obstinate, the apostate and, worst of all, the degenerate. Here’s how the strident but tawdry Reformation Charlotte Christian blog referred recently to LGBT people, who, damn them, just won’t leave their deviant ways and let the virus in: 

Of course, nobody – literally, nobody – can walk away from the Scriptures and come away with the understanding that God is fine with men committing shameless acts with men and women giving up the natural relations for those that are contrary to nature (Romans 1:26-27). This is nothing more than an assault on God’s design for humanity by those who hate God and seek to justify their wickedness. But God has words for them – and he will not be mocked.

An ideology that views other people like this is not one worthy of anyone’s time or attention. It is an ideology for those unable to reason for themselves, who have a pathological need to feel ‘righteously’ superior, a condition achieved, despite what its founder may have said, by disparaging others. It needs to be allowed to die like the nasty infection it is. Christianity isn’t, of course, the only virus of this sort; all those that think more of supernatural beings and exclusionary condemnatory ‘principles’ than they do of real people are equally unhealthy. Like every cult leader before and since, the founders of both Christianity and Islam are made to insist that you love them much more than you love your parents, your children or anyone else. How’s that for wickedness?

If Onlys

I

If Grace hadn’t gone to the dance that night, she’d never have met Johnny.

If she’d never met Johnny, then they wouldn’t have married.

And if they hadn’t married, they would never have had Jean.

If her parents hadn’t then moved to Chester, Jean would never have met Graham.

If Jean had never met Graham, she would never have married him.

If she’d listened to her mother, she wouldn’t have married him.

But if Jean hadn’t married Graham, they would never have had Paul.

If Graham hadn’t married Jean, he couldn’t have left her, and Paul, for Samantha.

If Graham and Jean hadn’t had Paul, then he wouldn’t, later, have gone to the party where he met Anne.

If he hadn’t have met Anne, he couldn’t have married her.

If he hadn’t married her, he might have been happy.

But if he hadn’t married Anne, they wouldn’t have had Tom and Katherine.

And Tom and Katherine wouldn’t have produced Holly and Laurel and John.

If only, he thinks – Paul thinks – if only all of these if’s hadn’t come to pass. If only Grace hadn’t gone to the dance; if only she hadn’t met Johnny; if only they hadn’t married; if only they hadn’t had Jean; if only Jean hadn’t met Graham; if only she’d listened to her mother; if only Jean and Graham hadn’t got married; if only they hadn’t had Paul… then he, Paul wouldn’t exist. And if that were so, he sometimes thinks, things might somehow be have been better. Not for Tom and Katherine, Holly, Laurel and Mark obviously, because they wouldn’t exist. But then, they’d never know. That’s the trouble with if onlys.

II

If only the Colonel hadn’t taken power, then the rebels might not have started the war.

If the rebels hadn’t started the war, the Colonel might not have retaliated with such ferocity.

If only he had not retaliated, the people might not have found themselves in the incessant cross-fire.

If the people had not found themselves in the cross-fire, then surely, not as many of them would have been killed.

If only Alya hadn’t thought she could reach the market before the next air strike.

If only the air strike had started after she had reached the rubble on the other side of the street.

If only Alya had survived the air strike, then she would have had the chance to study, once the fighting had finally stopped.

If she had survived the strike, she would, eventually, have married Malik.

If she had married Malik they would have produced Tariq and Kaley.

And they would have produced Hanah and Leila and Jamil.

If only Alya had survived the air strike.

But she did not.

That’s the trouble with if onlys.

 

Lessons from Life 10: Probably

Death and taxes aside, nothing is certain. It isn’t certain there’s no God and no after-life. It isn’t certain that we’ll enjoy the average life expectancy or even that we’ll still be here this time tomorrow. It’s possible that these things are the case. The last two scenarios may even be probable.

This is the best we can do. Statistically and on the basis of the evidence, it’s probable there is no God (or improbable that there is, if you prefer it that way round.) It’s likely, again mathematically and provided other conditions are met, that you’ll live to the average life expectancy age in the Western world (if that’s where you’re reading this.) More people live to that age and beyond than don’t. It doesn’t mean you or I will. It just makes it more likely; statistically probable. On that basis, it’s probable, but not certain, you’ll be here tomorrow.

Reality operates on probabilities. Possibilities are more of a gamble, which is not to say probabilities aren’t, but possibilities are, quite literally, chancier. That just how it is, however we might wish otherwise, however much misguided religious zealots might declare otherwise. Probably.

The Pearl: an allegory

The old man lived alone on the edge of the forest. His family had all grown and left home and his wife had died many years ago. He was used to being on his own; he liked being on his own. In his solitude he would often recall the strange wild-haired speaker of words who had visited the village when he was a youth. This speaker of words spoke of a pearl of great price that was waiting to be found, and when it was, he said, the one who sought it would know it for what it was and would abandon all else to possess it. And the old man, when he was a young man, thought he would like to own this great pearl. With it he would be rich beyond his dreams and all of his troubles would come to an end.

Hardly a day passed that he did not think about the pearl of great price. Hardly a week went by that he did not look for it, on his travels into the wide world beyond the village. He began to neglect his family and his other possessions in pursuit of the pearl but alas, after many years he still had not cast eyes upon it. There were, it was true, times when he thought he had caught a glimpse of it and even occasions when treasures of a different sort came into his possession, but these were not the great pearl. He could not rest until he had found it and so he spent years of his life looking for it.

But once he was old, he gave up the search. Moving around was not as easy as it once was and though he had not forgotten the promise of the great pearl, he no longer believed it could be found. He doubted even that it existed and he began to curse the one who had told of it, all those years ago. So the old man lived alone, tending his crops, and fetching water from the well. He spoke when spoken to by those in the village, whenever he had cause to go there, but otherwise, he lived his life in quiet, remorseful isolation.

Until there came a time when, as the cold chill of winter crept over the land once more, he ventured into the forest to collect firewood. There was little to be had in the parts he knew well so he went deeper in, beyond the familiar sights and into the heart of the forest’s darkness. He soon became lost and casting around for a way out, he spied a light in the gloom ahead. As he stumbled towards it, the light shone more brightly, until, finally he reached a clearing in which sat a young man. Arrayed in white, his raiment shining like the sun, the young man raised dark piercing eyes and though he did not know why, the old man’s thoughts turned unbidden to the pearl for which he had once so earnestly searched. As if reading his mind, the young man rose and spoke:

‘That which you seek is here,’ he said in a voice not of this world.

‘I have sought the pearl these many years, my Lord,’ said the old man, a tear falling from his eye. ‘It is not to be found.’

‘You are wrong,’ said the young man. He was tall and dark and possessed of a presence the old man had not encountered since his youth. The boy stretched out his arm and opened his hand to reveal a glowing silver orb that seemed as if it were floating freely in the air. ‘It is here,’ he said.

The old man wiped away tears that now fell freely and stepped forward, reaching for the pearl. ‘Remember, my friend,’ warned the young man, ‘that whoever lays hold of the pearl forsakes all else.’ The old man would not have wished it other. Through the brilliance that emanated from it, he laid hold of the pearl and was, in that instant, consumed by the light. Every thought, every care, every sorrow and every regret that he had ever had was burnt away and he was transformed. No longer himself he was yet more himself than he had ever been.

While the shadows of trees filled the clearing, the darkness enveloped all. Of the old man and the young man and the pearl of great price there was no sign.