Paternoster Tales: Chapter 21

Disembodiment

There’s a bit in every story where the discerning reader thinks they’ve guessed what happens next and skips to the end because they are so sure they’re right that they can’t be bothered to read their rightness, or they are so fearful of what they have guessed, that they can’t put the story down quick enough. This is one of those moments.

Skip chapter 21 if you like.

Chapter 22 is much gentler; softer, warmer and furrier. It will take you back up to Paternoster Square and sunshine and a gentle breeze and colours and blue sky and a faithful friend who is about to be paid handsomely for his patience and trust.

Chapter 21 has its feet rooted in darkness and litter and lightning sparks of electricity and mechanical screams and dust and shuffling feet and sweat and Silas. When your feet are rooted like this, you can’t get away. Silas took advantage of this rooting. Of course he did. He’s Silas. That’s what he does. He creates situations that put him in control. He took advantage of everything, but most of all he took advantage of my fear. And he played with it like it was a porcelain feather – light enough to fly, fragile enough to smash.

We waifs can make each other move. Moving usually involves flying. In flying, we try very hard not to smash.

Oh … I know what you’re thinking: from all the things I’ve hinted at before, it’s obvious that we can’t make each other move – not physically. And you’re right … sort of.  We can’t push or shove or elbow another waif to make them move. That would be like … well, I don’t know what it would be like. I’ve never tried. I’ve never wanted to try. I’m pretty sure the laws of physics don’t apply to waifs; momentum is meaningless if you have no mass. And waifs if they ‘stood’ on a set of scales would certainly have no mass. We’d be weightless! Stuck in a vacuum of half-existence – more a memory of reality than reality itself. So pushing or pulling has no effect on us.

But the mind of a waif can force another waif to move.

If you were out for a stroll – sun just beginning to rise – light dancing on the leaves of the trees above – long grasses swaying gently in a breeze and brushing against your knees – insects beginning to hum and a few birds giving late voice to the dawn they’ve almost missed – and suddenly your eyes met the eyes of a big cat (cheetah, lion, tiger, leopard – it doesn’t matter which) – you would freeze and your eyes would hold the stare of the cat. How long could you hold that stare? How many seconds before beads of sweat formed on your head? Before the colour in your cheeks drained away into the earth? How long until you moved? It is just like this between waifs. This is how Silas made me move.

The train was roaring like a dragon contained in too tight a space as it entered the station. Silas flung me into the pressing tide of passengers and I was washed into the nearest carriage. He followed close behind. The doors closed and as the train started to move, Silas hissed “Run!”

Look back if you don’t recall and you’ll find I used the word squelchy to describe the living humans on a train. There’s no easy way to tell you this. Waifs are sometimes forced to pass through living humans. If a waif passed through you, you probably wouldn’t notice anything. However, you might if he or she was a bit clumsy about it. If he sort of fell through you. In a panic. As he tried to escape. Then you might notice a smell, or see a blurred image of a face that wasn’t yours in the carriage window, or experience a fleeting dream of thoughts that aren’t your own – an apple orchard, and a black and white cow and a woman with red hair wearing a once-white apron and cold, cold water and choking and a terrible pain in your chest.

When we pass through you, we don’t linger and we try to avoid taking anything. Sometimes we see things – worry about an exam, a smile because a baby went into nursery happy without having a tantrum, words being practised for a lecture, and lists, lots and lots of lists – phone mum; buy bread; cancel the milk; plant the bulbs; revise glaciers for the Geography test and make a list for next week. You’re all obsessed with lists. Maybe we were too. Anyway, we try not to take away the things that we see, partly because we don’t know what they are. If we took the picture of an electric blue dragon fly that we saw, would that cause the man we took it from to forget to book the family camping and canoeing holiday on the Dordogne River in France, when he gets home from work and his commute on the train. Would a much repeated number – 56 – snatched from the head of a child make her fail her maths test? So, you see why we have to be careful. When we can …

It’s really hard to be careful when Silas screams at you to ‘Run!’ and despite the noise inside your head telling you not to, you do. The other reason to be careful is that three squelches is all we get. Increase it to four and a waif Disappears. Normally, put a waif in a crowded room and there would be plenty of space to play. Like I’ve said before, we’re good at squeezing between things; as long as there is room for air to pass, we can too. It becomes a lot trickier when the room is travelling at thirty-or-so miles an hour and the people are packed-in like sardines in a can – which is a terrible cliche because the sardines in a can are surrounded by oil and even on a hot, sweaty day, the people crammed into a tube train are not wet. It would be better to suggest they’re like biscuits in a biscuit packet – though that implies they’re all the same size and brittle. How about crayons stuffed into a pencil case – different sizes, different colours, zipped in, bulging at the seams … yes? I think I like the crayons simile best. I also think I’m procrastinating. Maybe because I don’t want to admit what happened.

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