Thursday, August 31, 2006

Chapter X


As any parent will tell you, the growing pains of an infant child are many and varied, both for the child itself and for those around it. Life becomes all the more difficult for the child if it does not have stability. So it was with the Bubble whose mother – the blessed Joanna – had died in childbirth, and whose surrogate parents – Reverend Dalrymple and his second lieutenant, Mr Seggar – had died as martyrs for the cause of the Bubble’s moral fortitude.

There had been, as we have seen, much confusion in the countryside. Rivers and streams ran uphill and burst their banks; animals previously unnoticed by the naked eye expanded colossally and took to the skies; and the former giants of the animal world – great mammals and carnivores and underwater predators – shrunk to the size of fleas. In the towns as well there had been considerable damage. But it was the relationships between people which were most significantly altered by the Bubble’s foundation. The leaders of the old world – politicians, landowners, squires and ministers – had been so shaken by this turbulence which they could do nothing about, that they tended to stay at home in the early days of the Bubble. But the common people of the world – “the Real People,” as they referred to themselves – had decided that it was best to act early in order to effect change. It was they who had been the powerless and the disenfranchised in the old world, and they were not prepared to submit to such paralysis again. Nevertheless, they were faced with a considerable dilemma. Most of the Real People had nourished an allegiance to God in the old world. Their doctrines differed considerably, and the God of one particular group would have been unrecognisable to another. But, nevertheless, a belief in God and a belief in humanity were the tenets which bound the groups together, however tenuously. By denouncing the presence of God, Reverend Dalrymple and Mr Seggar had taken away their reason for living. They had to somehow reclaim Him without reneging the ethics their founding fathers had set down.

A decision was made by Mr Tozer, who as Joanna’s friend had assumed some responsibility for her creation. He arranged a meeting for the leading lights in London to meet in the Palace of Westminster, which, in the confusion of the Bubble’s birth and growth, had been dumped temporarily on a beach on the south-west coast, and discuss the future of the Bubble. Somebody somewhere – a Radical most likely – had spread the word and invited everybody he knew, in the belief that a discussion about everyone’s future by a select few was a discussion not worth having. The same man had also arranged for some light entertainment to precede the discussion: a strongman friend called Timothy Service who amused the people by lobbing planks of wood through the Palace’s windows. This angered some people, who found the idea of wanton destruction blasphemous and distasteful; others found it hilarious or empowering or incendiary or, in a few cases, carnally arousing. In any case, it had the desired effect of reclaiming the Palace as a public building, and as such one that the people could do with as they pleased. One man was even spotted carefully extracting window-panes and door-frames and taking them home to repair his house with.

The group gathered in the House at half-past eleven o’clock and Mr Tozer, who had assumed the role of Speaker, led the House in saying prayers. Mr Tozer opened the discussion with some opening remarks.

Mr Speaker (Mr. William Tozer): I must welcome the House to this important debate regarding the constitutional affairs of our new world. I would like first to set out some ground rules. The first is that is we are here under God’s ceiling because we are all equal in his eyes. In this respect, I would ask that all Members remain quiet while another is talking, and would also request that each Member listens with a careful ear to his Friend’s opinions. My second plea is for each Member to speak his mind in its totality without fear of restraint or rejoinder. An opportunity such as this does not occur every new moon or even every blue moon. We must make the most of it. Miss Harriet Clarke, please!

Miss. Harriet Clarke (layperson): I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your moving welcome, and I thank everybody here for coming. I would echo what you said, Mr Speaker, and simply add my own counsel for the good people in this place today. It is this: the Palace in which we sit or stand today is the place appointed by God for the purpose of bettering our society through honest government and the gentle rule of law.

Respectful applause from the Members of the House.

Miss. Clarke: Those who sat in this place before us to talk money and pass laws did not have our best interests at heart. They governed us scornfully, favouring the propertied and the monied. Most of us here are neither propertied nor monied. I myself am a mother of four; my husband is a phlebotomist. None of us are schooled; my husband earns a dreadful wage which we share amongst us the best that we can; the house we live in does not belong to us, and our landlord – a true scoundrel – might take it away from us as his fancy takes him. I, like most of you here, have never voted for anyone, nor made any contribution as to how I am permitted to live. That is why I am grateful to take advantage of this opportunity to talk to you all, and urge you to think about your family and friends and neighbours who are not able to be here today. It is them, as well as ourselves, we must have in our thoughts.

Cheers from the House. Shouts of “Liberty!” etc.

Mr. Speaker: Mr Max Baker.

Ironic cheers.

Mr. Max Baker (Independent and Reformist): Mr Speaker. Ladies and Gentlemen. I shall not, you will be relieved to hear, allow deliberations to be protracted through cause of my own speech.

More cheers and laughter.

Mr Baker: But, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a brief point about the nature of time, if I might be permitted.

Mr Speaker: If you must make your point about time, Mr Baker, please ensure you do not exhaust too much of it in doing so!

Great laughter from the House. Slapping of thighs, clutching of foreheads, general mirth etc.

Mr Baker: I take your point, Mr Speaker. There are several theories about the nature of time. Some of these are archaic – though, to some, still somewhat relevant – and some are relatively modern. One could quite logically make the claim that ideas about time should not be prejudiced by its passing, but such is the temper of ideas, the development of which must inextricably be linked to human development, that it is often assumed, and at times with good reason, that philosophical thought is bound to improve over time, including those thoughts about time. One of the most interesting ideas I have heard about time, which I became privy to purely by chance in an establishment located in one of the more respectable areas of a northern town, whose name I shall not disclose here, is that it follows a cyclical path. For the purposes of elucidation, I should like to introduce you to an imaginary traveller. Let us call him –

Voice from the rear of the house: Saint Christopher!

Mixed emotions from the House. Those of a decadent nature roar with laughter once again, while the more sensitive Members frown and pray for this wicked wit’s soul.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the gentleman speak.

Mr. Baker: Let us call him –

Uproar continues. A missile of paper is lobbed across the House..

Mr Speaker: Order. Really, ladies and gentlemen. I must remind you of your surroundings. I have granted this urgent debate and I can stop it at will. If Members shout, that is what I will do, so they have a choice.

Uproar subsides.

Mr Speaker: Now, Mr. Baker. Continue, and please heed my warning and aspire to brevity.

Mr. Baker: I am merely seeking to explain the point, which I overheard in the northern town to which I made reference earlier, that time does not work in terms of a journey which our unnamed traveller might take. It does not have a starting point; it does not stop for rests or sustenance; and it does not have a terminus. It simply goes round and round and round: never quickening nor slowing down, never resting nor tiring: just continuing to pass. I am striving to explain this point, which some Members amongst us today might find contentious, intelligently so I am surprised that certain sections of the assembled find cause to get so aerated.

High-pitched “ooh”s of derision from the House.

Mr. Baker: But the implication is this: we are compelled to do what is right for us now. We are no nearer to the end of history than we were a year, ten years, a hundred or a thousand years ago. We should not be troubled by how the future will judge us. We must do what is right for the Bubble now!

Cheers from the House.

Mr. Speaker: Mr John Hood, please.

Mr. John Hood (Calvinist): Mr Speaker, I thank you for the wise words you used to open this debate and congratulate the previous speakers on their cogency. I myself find it ungodly that we are having a debate of this kind at all –

Roars of objection from the House.

Mr. Speaker: Order. You may not like what Mr Hood has to say but please remember my ground rules. The quicker he is allowed to make his point, the quicker we can return to sensible discourse. (to Mr Hood) I apologise, Mr Hood, but that is my view.

Mr. Hood: It is one you are entitled to hold. For my own part, I consider that you live in Satan’s kingdom, and thus any opinion you air in my direction is quite irrelevant. But if I am allowed to continue –

Mr. Speaker: I shall not stand in your way.

Mr. Hood: Much obliged. I myself find it ungodly that we are having a debate of this kind at all, and there are five reasons I would like to give for this assertion.

Mr. Speaker: (in disbelief) Five?

Mr. Hood: They are all quite short.

Mr. Speaker: Very well. Proceed.

Mr. Hood: The first, Mr Speaker, ladies and gentlemen, is related to your residence in Satan’s kingdom. If you have not subjected yourself to the transcendence of God – and your various delusions of creating a future of your own making clearly indicate you have not – then you must clearly be very evil people indeed. I do not say this in order to offend; in fact, I am very much enjoying the pleasure of your company this morning, and would like to invite those of you who are able to join my wife and I at church on Sunday. She is cooking a goose for lunch, which the more profligate among you may enjoy. Nevertheless, in failing to give every part of yourselves to God, you are all clearly very depraved indeed. My second point is that I too am depraved. I sin regularly and, were it up to me, I should have stoned myself to death many years ago. Thankfully it is not up to me – nothing is! – and such is the beneficence of God that I am forgiven for my sins and can therefore be here to talk to you today.

Voice from the back: More’s the pity!

Laughter from the House.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I sympathise with your objection sir, but trading insults will not enable this debate to progress.

Mock tutting from the House.

Mr. Speaker: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Mr Hood, please proceed.

Mr. Hood: My third point is that your eventual conclusion today is irrelevant, since God has predetermined the course which the world will take, and which of us is suitable for salvation.

Voice from the back: But surely that means he has pre-determined what conclusion we will reach today? And that means whatever is decided – even if we decide to determine our own destinies and say yah-boo to old dyed-in-the-wools like yourself – will have God’s backing.

Sensation in the House.

Mr. Speaker: They do say He works in mysterious ways. Anyway – who’s next? The Duchess of –

Mr. Hood: (interrupting) But I still have two outstanding points!

Mr, Speaker: I think we can surmise what they might be, Mr Hood, since your first three all more or less said the same thing.

Laughter in the House.

Mr. Hood: But –

Mr. Speaker: You might like to send any concerns you have regarding the democratic processes of this House in writing to the Serjeant-at-Arms.

Mr. Hood: Is there such a person?

Mr. Speaker: Certainly. You are talking to him now.

Hubbub in the House.

Mr. Speaker: Order gentlemen please. Thank you. Now – who have we next? Mr Feversham?

Mr. Feversham (Chiliast): Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

House: (confused) Amen.

Mr. Feversham: (with high drama) I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.

Mr. Speaker: Yes, speaking of words, could Mr Feversham not also send these thoughts to the Serjeant-at-Arms in writing?

Mr. Feversham: And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto stone a most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; and had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr Feversham, I appreciate your respect for the authority of the scriptures, but there is really no need to out-God us all. We all of us here are good Christian folk –

Voice from the back: Speak for yourself!

Laughter in the House.

Mr. Speaker: Order. – but we did prayers earlier, so unless you wish to furnish us with information of a more relevant nature –

Mr. Feversham: Sir, perhaps I might point you towards the relevant bits in what I have just said?

Mr. Speaker: Proceed.

The House settles down again to listen to Mr. Feversham

Mr Feversham: In the passages with which I began my address, I referred to the lost tribes of the children of Israel. The events of the last week – the creation, I mean, of this thing which we are calling a Bubble – have seen the lost tribes of Israel dispersed far and wide –

Mr Speaker: – They have been spotted in Birmingham and Wapping, I believe.

Laughter in the House

Mr Speaker: Order. For the life of me I cannot see what is funny in that. Mr Feversham, continue.

Mr Feversham: I have read reports in the broadsheet newspapers and titbit weeklies of what has happened. Some, as we know, are claiming that a Bubble has consumed the world: beginning somewhere in the south-west of England, and spreading out in all directions until it had taken possession of the entire world and everything within it. This seems to me a barely plausible explanation, but it is not bad. Some are referring to something called a Big Bang and something called evolution: this, for my own part, I feel is deeply irreligious. Others are placing the whole affair at the feet of a late Devonshire woman, of whom God was apparently particularly enamoured. I do not know which of these explanations is correct, but I can report the following to you.

Air of expectation in the House.

Mr Feversham: On the morning when the full force of the Bubble (for I agree to call it that) was thrusting itself upon ourselves and our brothers and sisters, I spoke to God.

Mr. Speaker: (meekly) And what did He say, Sir?

Mr. Feversham: (ignoring Mr. Tozer) And as we spoke, I realised that the Bubble was in fact the work of God Himself.

Mr. Speaker: Did He confirm this?

Mr. Feversham: (irritated) One doesn’t ask God foolish questions, Mr. Tozer. Anyway, the point I am making is that it was only because I talked to God, and because of His infinite grace and mercy, that the world was not completely destroyed. I asked Him if he might spare us, so that we could build a new city where there is no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All this was what the Book of Revelations prophesied; in our most desperate moments, all of us have wondered whether this day would ever come; and now, ladies and gentlemen, it has! I can see the new Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light shall be like unto stone a most previous, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; and it shall have a wall great and high with twelve gates, and at the gates there shall be twelve angels, with names written thereon. Can you see the new Jerusalem? Can you? Will you?

House descends into triumphant and passionate applause, cheers, women fainting etc.

It was at this point in the discussion that, to most of the assembled party, the Bubble suddenly made sense. Ever since Reverend Dalrymple had rolled down the hill from Ottery St. Mary’s churchyard, all eyes had been on the Bubble. It was all anybody had spoken about since Christmas. Those outside the Bubble wondered what it could be and why it had come; and those inside it wondered what it could mean. There were as many theories as there were people, but now Mr Feversham had offered up an explanation that everyone could believe in. It was not simply an act of Nature or – pshaw! – evolution. The Bubble actually meant the end of civilisation and the coming of Christ. Like a politician, Mr Feversham had asserted his millenarian claims with just enough logic to make them plausible, and his zeal was such that it divided the House into two discrete groups. One was led by Mr Feversham and its manifesto was to work towards the new Jerusalem of which he had received such stunning vision. The other (something of an omnium gatherum) was made up of people who, for various reasons, distrusted Mr Feversham and his lofty rhetoric. And in between these two groups were the majority: wavering, unsure which camp to pitch in, and feeling every bit as powerless as ever.
Anyhow, Mr Tozer concluded the Debate with some fine platitudes, including a passing tribute to the Duchess of Marlborough’s hat, and the group then dispersed.

The following weeks saw further debate among men and women of learning on both sides, so that extreme points of view gradually became moderated and sensible policies began to be applied. Normal people carried on regardless. It seemed curious to some that the rulers of the Bubble were so keen to appear to act on their behalf, while at the same time working as if they were in an elite cabal, a more civilised species as it were. But such was the desire of these rulers (from Reverend Dalrymple and Mr Seggar through to Mr Feversham and the future Prime Minister, the Duke of Marlborough) to assert their authority that they persisted in forever moving the goalposts, so that


had become


which became


which became


which became


Some people were something, and the majority were nothing: faceless, nameless nobodies, useful when it came to elections, but with no other specific function in society. The people of the Bubble instantly accepted this. They had always been nobodies, and they could see no reason why the birth of a new world would change that.


Saturday, August 12, 2006

Chapters VIII and IX


On the eighth midday since the Bubble’s birth, and the first since it had been substantially populated, Reverend Dalrymple and Mr Seggar held their first Committee meeting. It was held in a spherical space, approximately ten feet in diameter, dead in the centre of the Bubble where Reverend Dalrymple had set up his home.

During the confusion of the Bubble’s first rapid expansion, the Reverend had taken a large oak table which had spilled out of some duke or other’s residence. It had been the duke’s, but it was now in the spherical space, and was therefore Reverend Dalrymple’s. He had decided he would write committee reports and design grand strategies and urban plans for the Bubble at this table. It barely fit in his ten foot by ten foot spherical space, but for now it served as ground control.

Although Mr Seggar had been the second person to enter the Bubble (by about five days), Reverend Dalrymple agreed that they would be joint Chairs of the Committee. “Two heads,” he said astutely, “are better than one.” There were no other constituents present, and Membership was not one of the agenda items. These were:

1. Apologies
2. Terms of Reference
3. Governance
4. Any other business

Mr Seggar volunteered to take minutes.

“Very well,” said Reverend Dalrymple, “shall we begin?” Mr Seggar held his pen a centimetre above the page ready to note salient points.

“Any apologies?”

“I haven’t received any.”

“Me either.” There was a pause.

“You should write Item one, colon, Apologies, then underline it. Then underneath write None.”

“I see.” Mr Seggar did this.

“Have you written the title of the meeting, and the date, and who is present?”


“You should do that as well.” Mr Seggar began to write something down, then scribbled it out.

“What is the title of the meeting?”

“The title of the meeting? Ah.” Reverend Dalrymple scratched his eyebrow and sniffed. “A New World Management Board,” he said authoritatively. Mr Seggar wrote this down, along with the date and his and Reverend Dalrymple’s names, at the top of the page.

“The next item is Terms of Reference. Do we have any?”

“I haven’t brought any,” said Mr Seggar.

“Me either. I shall draft the Terms of Reference for the next meeting.”

“We are having another meeting?” asked Mr Seggar, surprised.

“Many more meetings, Mr Seggar, many more. Now. I shall draft the Terms of Reference for the next meeting. That is called an action point. You should write Reverend Dalrymple – or RD – to draft Terms of Reference for the next meeting, then underline it.” Mr Seggar wrote this, not knowing what Terms of Reference meant.

“Now. Governance. This is a very big topic, Mr Seggar. A very big topic indeed. So big that it may take several meetings to thrash it out properly.”

“What does it mean?”

“Well, Mr Seggar, you and I were the first people to enter this place. I was the first and you were the second. Before you became the second, do you remember what you asked me? Down in Ottery village square?” Before Mr Seggar could reply, Reverend Dalrymple answered his own question. “You asked me if I was God.”

“Yes,” agreed Mr Seggar.

“Do you know the answer to your question?”

“I’m not sure,” said Mr Seggar.

“Well, Mr Seggar. Let me tell you something about human life. You needn’t minute this, but you may wish to take some brief notes for your own reference. Now, Mr Seggar, the first thing to say about human life is that it is made up of two distinct groups. Not men and women; not employer and employee; not clever and stupid or rich and poor. Creators and survivors. Those are the two groups, Mr Seggar: creators and survivors.” Mr Seggar wrote down Creators and Survivors. “Some people cling onto their mortal coil for dear life, just because they feel thankful to be on the coil at all, to have something – anything! – on which to cling. But there are other people who want nothing more than to let go of the coil and to find out what is inside of it, or outside of it; what it looks like from above, or below; whether you can break it, smash it to pieces, use it as a spring; whether it has a beginning or an end, or whether it is a moebius strip which never begins or ends and which has no middle and therefore no real measurements at all. Do you understand what I am saying, Mr Seggar?”

“A mortal coil,” murmured Mr Seggar doubtfully.

“Creators and survivors.” Reverend Dalrymple got up from the table and began to pace around his spherical space, looking out onto the Bubble. “Survivors survive through instinct. Something – a voice, perhaps, but one which they don’t hear – tells them that they should carry on whatever they were doing yesterday and last week and last month. They have no free will to do any different. Only creators have this. Creators let go of the mortal coil and some fall into black holes and stay there for a split second which equals eternity. But others find new coils and new creations. Some are made from coloured matter daubed over a coarse cloth – you will find these in a gallery. Some are made from air vibrations controlled by blowing or hitting or picking or scraping – you will hear these in a concert-hall or on a record. Some are made from dyed fluids stamped or engraved onto reprocessed wood in more formations than any sensible man could count – these are on your bookshelf, Mr Seggar, if indeed you have one.”

“They are books,” said Mr Seggar eagerly.

“Indeed they are. But another of these creations is the planet Earth. God, using his own free will, created the planet Earth, and thereby established his own existence. A painter does the same, as does a musician, or an author. All these are Gods. I created the Bubble, and so, to answer your question, I am God. Having established this, I call on you to help me decide precisely, or as precisely as is possible, what it is that I have created. To do this you will also have to be a creator. Have you created anything before, Mr Seggar?”


“Do you have a wife?”


“Do you have any children?

“Yes.” A look of excitement arched over the Reverend’s face.

“Did you intend to?”

“No.” With great sinking shoulders Reverend Dalrymple sighed and looked at the floor.

“You are, I’m afraid, a survivor, Mr Seggar. This is something we must change. We will work together to make you a creator like me!” Mr Seggar and Reverend Dalrymple looked at each other. They looked at each other for some time, trying to synchronise their psyches. After a while Mr Seggar began grinning. His eyes grew wider and took on a glisten and a shimmer. He bared his teeth at Reverend Dalrymple in a horrible and beautiful grin. His nostrils flared and a prickly sweat covered his face. Reverend Dalrymple looked at him and looked at him until he started not to look like Mr Seggar at all. Mr Seggar started to write something. Reverend Dalrymple furrowed his brow and looked at Mr Seggar as if he were a medical experiment. Mr Seggar wrote and wrote, then scrawled and scrawled, with the energy of a wild animal. His hand was not making any logical movement. It was like the hand of an untamed concert conductor as it flailed and flopped and carved deep black scores and smudges onto the paper. Then he stopped, and with his own free will wrote six clear words under the mess of the picture on the page:

Reverend Dalrymple took the piece of paper, ripped it up, and threw the pieces outside of the spherical space at the centre of the Bubble. They flew in every direction and dissolved into thin air. He said to Mr Seggar:

“I destroyed your picture. Now we are both God.”

And thus they set about governing the Bubble. Firstly, they agreed that the planet Earth, the world they had left behind, was bad. It was ruled by the wrong people and these people killed the other people over whom they ruled. The people who were the rulers were the creators, but with their free will they created death. The people who were the ruled were the survivors, but their instincts told them to obey the ruler and die, and some didn’t know the difference between living and death. This happened over and over and over so that history was no longer history and probably never had been. It was just an endless series of repetitions. Reverend Dalrymple had created a new world for the first time since God. The Bubble would take over the world, God was dead, and Reverend Dalrymple, with Mr Seggar, was now God. Having established the world’s rottenness, they decided that the Bubble must be entirely different. It must share none of the old world’s traits. Rules must change; feelings must change; thoughts and the way in which they are expressed must change; morals must change; time and space themselves must change. Ultimately, Reverend Dalrymple idealised, people would not think in terms of rules, feelings, thoughts, expression, morals, time and space, or anything else. But he knew this would take time. He must start small. So he and Mr Seggar, in their first New World Management Board, discussed the accepted morals and immorals from the old world.

They then decreed that all morals and immorals must be reversed so that what was once moral was now immoral and must be outlawed, and what was once immoral was now moral and should be rewarded. At the end of the meeting, the two men killed each other. This is how the meeting ended.


It was now early evening and time for William to be getting back home to Kate and the boys. He had not worked especially hard today if truth be known; but then again he had not earned a penny. He had been given a sitting down job to do – counting 100 bolts into little cardboard boxes – so he had the whole day for his head to go wherever it chose. So it dreamed about being crushed in a riot; it thought about the church where he’d said his prayers yesterday and how he might suggest to Kate that they could escape to the bell-tower one night with some beer on credit from the pub, and some cigarettes, and he could try and woo her like he had done when they were kids.

And that got him thinking about his own kids, and whether one day there might be something – maybe a revolution, because people spoke about revolutions all the time – which might mean that his boys could have a good story to tell their grandchildren. William had, ever since he was a boy, lived in a world where whatever he did or did not do, whether he bore children or killed his own mother, his actions would have no impact at all on the world. None at all. He had been born thirty-four years ago, had received a rudimentary education for a few years and had been mostly left to pasture; then he had become a labourer on a farm in Kent; then a gardener; then he met Kate and married; then they had two kids; then he had been made redundant and found another job in a factory which he knew exactly how to blow up and take with it most of Camden and Highgate and Finsbury Park. There was a story in there somewhere but William did not know how he was going to tell it to his grandchildren. They would not care that in all his time alive he had worked, read a bit, had sex, eaten meals, got drunk, said his prayers, gone to his parents’ funerals and tended their graves without having any effect on the world whatsoever. This did not make him angry but it did make him wonder why he was alive and whether anyone else thought like this. It was this that made him want to go “AAAAAAAAAA” and get a boot stamped in his face.

But it was no good. Nothing would happen to make his boys grow into real people. William would keep his head down, try not to get too drunk on Sundays, and wait for the recession – or whatever it was that they called poor people dying – to end. The Blackstocks would be OK even if the Tanners and the Pirellis would not. His boys would get better jobs than William had managed and get more money. They would get married and have children of their own to worry after. But they would never mean anything to anybody except themselves. If they became sufficiently affluent that they had leisure time to enjoy, the things they would fill their evenings and weekends with would be as boring as filling little cardboard boxes with bolts. William could feel himself breathing. He could still feel his heart beating from all that beer last night. But really he knew he was dead, and that Kate and the boys were dead too, and he only wished he could tell them.

William signed out from the factory and began to walk home. He felt a pinging and a tingling in his ears. He walked past a school which had just been demolished, then past the police station, then past a slum. He looked back and saw trees and a field full of rape and something which looked like running water. He wanted to pick apples from the trees and lie in the rape and roll his trousers up to his ankles and take a dip in the river. But something pushed him onwards and made him realise he could not go back. He had heard the managers and the mechanics say something about a force (that was what they called it) which was coming from the west and which would change the world. All the factory was in a great tiz about it. William couldn’t have cared less as he put his 97th bolt in the box. But when he couldn’t climb a tree that was barely twenty yards away, or smell the rapeseed oil of a field he could see glowing beside a copse, or feel a cool trickle of water running over his hand – it was then that he realised the Bubble did exist and that he was the only person in the world who wasn’t inside it.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Chapter VII


William did not notice this. He had been working in the factory all morning. He had received his punishment for being late. He would work the rest of the day for no money and there was nothing he could do about it. As he worked he drifted off into his favourite fantasy. He was in a mob, a crowd of thousands of people all marching along a London street. The mob was packed tightly so that William pushed into the person in front of him, was pushed by the person behind him, and jostled and was jostled by those to either side. Seen from above the crowd had the shape of a mooncalf – surging, coming together, then drifting apart, diluting, then coming together again. It never quite had a set shape, but it never disintegrated.

William was not sure why the crowd was marching. He did not know why he marched with them. He could not see their faces so he did not know if they were angry or hateful or euphoric. He was sure they were all strangers. None of them seemed to be the herds and gangs from his neighbourhood or from the factory. There was an orderliness and a dispassion to the crowd which made William uneasy. Sometimes he looked to his right or to his left and saw, through the mass of people, a policeman. The policeman was always looking at him, wherever he was, always looking at William, smiling stupidly, flashing all his teeth at him. It was not a friendly or a nasty smile, and the policeman did not seem to have any control over it. There was a panic in the policeman’s eye which seemed like a cry for help – “please! take this smile off my face! take these teeth from my mouth!” But still the policeman stood, a vile white smile frozen on his face, always looking at William.

And sometimes unruly sections of the crowd would peel away from the rest and smash the windows of a shop, or shout at the shop’s staff, calling them slaves and smashing their skulls in with their banners or with their own skulls. Such breaks from the crowd were dealt with swiftly by sensible and orderly stewards.

A speaker would get up and the crowd would stop. The speaker would say a few words to focus the minds of the crowd. He would call out familiar slogans to which the crowd would clap in an orderly fashion. The speaker would bawl out another slogan and the crowd would clap again. A heckler would heckle or boo or hiss the speaker, and he would be dealt with by the sensible and orderly stewards. Then the crowd would move forward a little further. And the desperate smiling policeman would keep his gaze on William. Sometimes a tear would run down his face.

Then a pocket of violence would erupt in the mass of the crowd and would explode outwards like a big bang or a cancer or a nuclear explosion. This was the most exciting bit of the fantasy. This was the bit where William felt a clamp against his heart which squeezed a scream up through his chest and out of his body, a scream that went “AAAAAAAAAA” and blocked out everything else and never stopped. This was when William heard the violence begin and stood still, rolled his eyes back in his head, lifted both feet off the ground and waited for the stream of violence to hit him and sweep him up and carry him off. When it came it felt like flying. Bodies surging towards him; he went from upright to prone, only a few feet off the ground. Some of the bodies were clothed, but some had their clothes ripped off. William wanted to be pushed and shoved by the ones whose clothes had been ripped off and he wanted to push and shove them back. Some of the bodies were children. Sometimes William pushed and shoved the children. Sometimes he kicked and punched the children and tore their limbs apart. Sometimes they were William’s own children. He would close his eyes and smile and feel the heavy boots kick his face and the teeth of desperate women sink into his ears, and hungry hands grab his hair to pull him along in another direction. His neighbour’s blood would drip onto his face and William would count the drops and lick them greedily from his cheeks and under his chin. When he had this fantasy, he would feel nothing but liberation. It took him away from the factory for a while.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Chapters V and VI


William Blackstock felt a shard of light burning his face. It came from a gap in the curtains and it shone an intense light across his cheek and the bridge of his nose and over his left eye. William squinted. It was Monday morning. He moved his hand over the other side of the bed. Kate was up. Must be past seven.

William was covered in a film of sweat and his face itched from not shaving. He pressed his tongue over the bridge of his mouth and round his furry brown gums. He tasted stale alcohol and food and tobacco. His throat felt harsh as though splinters lay in his windpipe, but he did not want to lubricate it by swallowing his evil tasting spit. His heart suddenly leaped. It often did this, especially after a night of drinking. It was the jolt that awoke him and told him he was alive and that the body in which his mind rested was indeed his own. He shut his eyes to go back to sleep but he felt too disgusting to be sufficiently at peace. A voice in his head said “I shall never drink again.” This is what he and his drinking friends often said to each other the morning after a heavy session. Another voice laughed. William smiled in his head though his mouth did not move. He heard the door open.

“William Blackstock, you might not like your job but you’ll like poverty even less.” There was a silence while Kate Blackstock looked at the lump which lay sprawled across their bed. The lump knew it was being watched, but did not move. “I don’t mind being a kept woman, even if you don’t keep me on very much. But – as God is my witness, William Blackstock – you do not want to make this wife into a pauper. You will not get a moment’s peace, so you won’t. You’ll be thirsting for that factory.” William had heard all this before. He quite enjoyed hearing it so long as he did not need to reply. “And she might decide not to cook for you anymore. Not that she ever has anything to cook with now.” It was all William’s fault. He knew. His fault that the family was poor. “And she might decide not to darn your socks or repair your trousers.” It was his fault that his clothes got damaged at the factory. “Or maybe she’ll decide not to come to church with you anymore. Maybe praying for her own sins will be enough!” Kate never drank or swore or slept with other men or coveted her neighbour’s ox. She was a good person. William, William always thought, was not a good person. He was not a bad person. But he only ever tried to abide by the eleventh commandment: don’t get caught. “And maybe she’ll sleep in a separate bed to you and never let you get your dirty hands all over her. Now get up, William, and go to work!” She dragged the blanket off him with a powerful pull. William made a groaning sound, turned his head to Kate and squinted at her. William was thirty-four but, aside from the toll which twenty years of hard labour had taken on him, he retained his laddish good looks. He still knew how to use the twinkle in his eye that he had first used on Kate when he was fourteen, when they first kissed outside the Baker’s Arms down in Lambeth.

“Kiss me,” he murmured, his voice cracking with his first words of the day.

“I don’t want to kiss you. You’ll have a mouth full of beer and tobacco.”

“Kiss my cheek then.”

“William, get up.”

“Kiss my cheek.”

“I’ll kiss your cheek when you’ve shaved. Your bristles are two days old. It’s be like kissing a steel brush.” Her tone softened. “Now get up, William. I’ve made you some porridge. It’s a bit watery but it’s not bad. The boys got us some honey last night.” Kate hated it that William got drunk on Sundays, but she hated it more that her husband had to work as a slave all day. She tried to be a good wife. She did not often complain, or she hoped she didn’t. She shouldn’t have threatened him like that. She would sleep with him whether they had money and food on the table or not. She would darn his socks as long as he had feet to wear them. The husband of a friend, an Italian called Marco, only had one pair of socks now, and he never took them off. His wife had tried to take them off a while back. He had been wearing them for months and the skin from the sole of his foot had peeled off with the sock, and he had yelled so much they had left the sock on. He hadn’t worked for several weeks now because he could no longer stand up. His leg would have to be chopped off. They had children too. What would they do? Terrible. It didn’t bear thinking about.

Kate pottered in the kitchen. The boys were outside, already on the make, trying to bribe the kids from down the road to sneak into the vegetable man’s shop and nick a couple of cabbages or a bag of potatoes. The kids from down the road agreed to anything. They were so poor that some people reckoned they sometimes ate clay to stop them from going hungry.

Kate listened to the bumps and muffled expletives of her sleepy, still drunk husband trying to navigate the bathroom. It was still bitterly cold out, but the sky was whiter than it had been the past few weeks. Clouds still filled the sky but they looked less threatening than before. In the middle distance was a patch of sky of such brilliance that Kate knew the sun must have been just behind, waiting for its chance to shine.

Kate sat on the chair by the kitchen table and folded a dirty dishcloth into her waistline. William would be late, which would mean he would get punished and possibly get some pay docked, but at least it meant that he was at home for half an hour more. She liked having time on her own, but she didn’t have anyone to talk to. The Blackstocks were the wealthiest family on the street and everyone knew it, which meant nobody spoke to them. Her boys stole, just like all boys, but her boys led the street’s juvenile crime ring, and they had more intellect than their subordinates to engineer a higher cut of the earnings. She and William were the only couple they knew who were happy together. Other couples had been happy at some point in the past. But now they were so poor that the basic instinct for survival had defeated any feelings of romantic love for one another. Kate didn’t mean to, but she looked down on some of the women. Almost none of them were pure, or faithful to their husbands, and especially not the girls. When Marco Pirelli had a gangrenous leg, the Pirelli family had to find an alternative source of income. As Kate had heard somebody say, morality on £5,000 a year in Belgrave Square is a very different thing to morality on slop-wages in Bethnal Green.

Kate had a fantasy that one day she would have a maid to make breakfast and get everybody up and washed and dressed and packed off to work or school, and Kate would simply sit and watch. She would be the calm in the eye of the morning storm. It was a flight of fancy, she knew, and she usually felt miserable once she returned to her senses. She would always be the housewife, William would always break his back in that factory, and the boys would always be scavenging. They would never have enough to be really happy, but always too much to have friends.

Still, this morning she could catch her breath while William got dressed. The porridge was still warm on the stove ready for him. William had smelt it in the bathroom and had made approving noises. The Christmas tree stood in the corner of the room on top of an upturned wicker basket three feet off the ground. Its needles had mostly turned brown and lost the life to cling to the branches. The tree was now a sad, spindly looking thing, like a cage of bones, but Kate could not bear to take it down. On Christmas Day it had been the tree that convinced the Blackstocks that they were the equal of kings and queens. Just for that one day they had good food, including a round, succulent goose; they had beer and wine and home-made lemonade for the boys, which they mixed with William’s ale when he fell asleep; and they all had presents to give each other. They had a tree with a star and they played games and sang songs and talked into the night. And William had told the children the real message of Christmas and of Jesus, and they had told him that they were like Jesus and he was Joseph and Kate was Mary, and they made up extra people for the wise men and the shepherds. On the twenty-sixth they had a little less food and the tree began to turn, and on the twenty-seventh the boys were scavenging again and William was back at work and now it was like Christmas had never happened, except for the tree.

After William had washed and dressed he came through and ate his porridge. He and Kate talked a little, she remembering something one of the boys had said and he smiling. But somehow their hearts weren’t in it. They had flirted with each other, but Kate had been thinking of Christmas and how it was another year away, and William had been thinking of about the punishment he would get for being late. Neither of them wanted to speak, not to anyone. They both just wanted to think, alone. William kissed Kate goodbye and walked out the front door.

As he walked down the street, he had the feeling he was being followed.


The Bubble had, as Reverend Dalrymple predicted, arrived safely in London in the early hours of the morning, though by this time it was hardly a Bubble. It was more like something between a marble and a snowball. Its surface was still transparent and permeable and still indestructible, and it had swallowed up more and more people and buildings and animals and crops – everything and everybody, in fact, from Ottery St. Mary to Croydon. What had begun inside Joanna as the thing she foresaw would save the world had made a curious journey at an amplified pace. It had dawdled for several days in and around the church, yet had just travelled 140 miles in a single night. Its rate of growth was swift too. By the time it reached London it was many times – perhaps a thousand times or more – larger than it had been in Devon. It was as if the south and south-west of England had gradually rolled itself into a ball and rested just outside of London. At around midnight, somewhere near Salisbury and not far from Stonehenge, the dry frostbitten earth had started to crack, just as mud cracks under the weight of heavy boots. Soon the cracks became wider and started to join up with each other. The Bubble continued to tear through Wiltshire and Hampshire, but now the ground had surrendered its attempts at keeping this thing above ground. The Bubble was burrowing through topsoil right into the earth. It groped and rummaged in every direction. By two in the morning, houses in the Berkshire Downs had succumbed to the Bubble’s forces. By four it had reached Woodstock in the north, Windsor in the east, and in the south had eaten up the seaside towns of Worthing and Littlehampton and Shoreham by Sea, and was making gains into the English Channel. By six, the Bubble had absorbed the following counties:

BEDFORD (part)
POWYS (part)
SURREY (part)

Its journey had been like that of a large and powerful steamer cruising through water, the driving force of its journey causing surges outwards, which in turn get forced back inwards. Eventually the direction of the water’s current returns to the centre. But water is fluid and earth is not, which meant that the shock waves of the Bubble’s direction of travel returned inwards and stuck to the ever-expanding mass of the Bubble. To get a rough sense of what England looked like on this morning, one should take a map of the British Isles and stick pins into the following towns:


In doing so, you will create a perforated outline of a circle. If you imagine this circle bulging out of the map, as well as burrowing into it, this was England and Wales.

But at daybreak the following morning, the Bubble stopped with a start in Croydon in south London. Once again, it was like travelling on a train, and the Bubble’s passengers had barely noticed they had been on the move all night until this sudden halt. It did not seem to anyone that the Bubble had (to coin a phrase) ran out of steam. There was clearly some reason why it had decided to stop in Croydon, besides the fact that the sky had become lighter and it was clearly time for breakfast. As they had been settling themselves in to their new world, nobody had paused to think who might be in control of the Bubble, or who was in charge. As far as anybody was aware, the Bubble existed in an organic state. No decisions had been made regarding political structures such as governments or committees or boards, or at least if there had, such decisions had not been made public.

But Croydon represented an important, even historical, point in the short time of the Bubble’s existence. The weight of the Bubble – such as it was filled with several hundreds of thousands of people, from the poorest farm tenant to the richest proprietor, with their homes and furniture, and the fields and roads and woods and rivers of their erstwhile towns and villages – was too much to allow it to continue burrowing and churning and eating up the earth. Having consumed much of the English Channel, there was also a need to reconfigure its structure so that its million or so inhabitants did not drown in its million or so gallons of water. Anyhow, whatever its composition, everybody in the Bubble said that the Bubble would get the world it deserved.

And so, in a very short period of time and in a manner which nobody noticed, all its water molecules were redistributed to the Bubble’s surface; all the atoms which made up its earth and trees repositioned themselves along invisible strata which ran from east to west and north to south (although east and west and north and south no longer existed); and people drifted from earth to water, or from friend to relative, just as they pleased. Although it soon turned into something quite different, the Bubble began as a fantastical world. High in the sky, brownish yellowish clouds tinted with silver loomed, drawing the eye back to the cold black mystery of the old world where only a few unfortunates remained. Birds, bats and giant bugs patrolled the skies, dancing on cloudpeel or colliding groundwards.

At ground-level, all aspects of the English countryside were piled on top of one another without rhyme or reason. The fields of Salisbury Plains rolled on the horizon, with the deep forests of Nottingham echoing damply below. As the eye followed birds floating from treetop to treetop, its journey would become interrupted by Dover’s chalky cliffs and Somerset’s apple orchards and fruit-pickers, kissing couples, small boys playing hide-and-seek. The busyness of the scene soothed the eye and the pensive spectator might well find himself looking heavenwards in search of a creator to thank: and there he would have seen, in the very ceiling of the sky, a large egg-shaped pod, pearly in colour, where Reverend Dalrymple sat looking on benignly. During that first dawn, when everybody and everything was trying to find its station in a new and uncertain world, it rained for four solid hours and no one was sure whether it would cause flowers or floods.

Upon reaching Croydon the Bubble developed feelers, and these feelers were covered in mouths. The mouths had a double function: to suck up and gorge on any creature or object which they felt would be to the Bubble’s advantage, and to spit out a sweaty saliva which they aimed at creatures, mostly people or dogs, who incurred their displeasure, and which turned them to liquid. By mid-morning they had eaten several thousand Londoners. By lunchtime the streets of every outer London borough from Greenwich to Harrow, from Kensington to Waltham Forest, were running with liquid flesh and blood.


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Chapter IV


The Blackstocks were too poor to live properly, but they did have enough money to live in a condition almost befitting human beings. This made them unloved and resented in their neighbourhood. A look around Kate Blackstock’s kitchen showed an iron pail, oblong and three feet and eighteen inches at its longest lines of longitude and latitude, standing in the corner beside a large antique bureau which had become mulchy through lack of polish. The pail was filled once or twice a week with tepid water (in fact, it was not filled: the water level was only three or four inches off the base). Kate, dressed in the dirty white blouse she wore everyday with sleeves rolled up, an equally dull skirt and an apron patterned with endless rows of diamonds, would kneel on the carpet, which had been kneeled on so much you couldn’t see the pattern. With a small pinched smile and blank eyes she would scrub the grime from her dirty husband’s torso and face while he knelt on all fours. The pail wasn’t big enough for a proper bath, but since they had no soap its size was irrelevant.

The smell in the house was awful. It was the smell of two adults and two children living filthily. Stacked up on the bureau were William’s mother’s china plates and milk-jugs. The bureau was his mother’s too. Everything in the house either had a grandeur rooted in the past, or else had no grandeur at all.

But the point was that the Blackstocks did own things. William’s pathetic wages and the boys’ game efforts at scrumping bought just enough food to keep skin and bones and muscles in their right places. And Kate had never miscarried and her two children were still alive and mostly healthy. Kate was the only mother in the street who could make these claims, and this was another reason why the street disliked her and saw her as puffed-up and above them. Jessica Tanner from no. 41 had lost two of hers within six months of each other – her sense of relief each time was palpable:

“I thank God for it! I am relieved from the burden of keeping them and they are relieved from the troubles of mortal life.” Jessica had worked as a seamstress and her wages were not enough to feed herself for breakfast for three days. With her husband who knows where, she had flown to the streets to make her living. She had nothing else, except her three other children, mother and elderly aunt. All six of them squeezed into a basement underneath the street which had originally been built to conceal rubbish. Kate had once had occasion to go into the Tanner’s house. It immediately struck her as appalling: joyless, pitiless and inhuman. Walking down the steps from the pavement, you entered the main room, which split its function between kitchen, sitting room and bedroom, depending on the time of day or the family’s needs. As soon as you were in this main room, your eyes were drawn to its various phenomena. Firstly, two wooden chairs which, like the other chairs in the house, were eaten up with woodworm and whose seats were made up of collapsed sacking. These two chairs stood at the back of the room, just in front of a stack of shelves. On the left hand chair sat Jessica Tanner’s mother. She was in her late forties but looked at least seventy. She was a large woman whose size, when compared to the waifs around her, made her look quite obscene. Kate had heard a story about old Mrs Tanner being visited by a doctor for some minor ailment and telling her friends afterwards, “I’ve got a good mind to report that Doctor Springer. He reckoned I should lose some weight. You know what he called me? He said, ‘Mrs Tanner, you’re a beast.’” Kate had laughed when she had heard the story. She couldn’t remember who had told her it. Perhaps it was the doctor. Nobody else in the street would tell her anything like that. Anyway, old Mrs Tanner would sit on the chair on the left and Baby would sit on the chair on the right. Baby was a doll which had been Jessica’s as a child. It was a biggish doll with a cherubic face and rosy-red cheeks. It still bore the marks of the seven-year-old Jess, who would draw eyeliner on Baby’s eyes with a graphite pencil. The doll had since lost all its hair, which drew attention to its weird, brick-red complexion. Its head was too big for its body; its tiny arms hung from its torso like flabby pink sausages and its legs had been sawn off above the knee. Its expression was one of censorious scrutiny. All the family secretly hated it, and it terrified the children, but Baby always sat there, judging them and never revealing its thoughts.

Elsewhere in the room there was a series of shelves, mostly dipping in the middles, which supported a jumble of chipped crockery, warped ironware and other bric-a-brac. Centre right was the dinner table, covered by last week’s newspapers, dragged out of the rubbish-bins on Sunday when they should have been at church. Centre left was the bed where the children slept. In the back right hand corner was a pile of dust and plaster where Jack Stubbs from upstairs had fallen out of bed and gone through the ceiling. All this sounds bad enough to the person who sees these things as the reader of a book, but the Tanners had to live in these disgraceful and disgusting conditions and only they really knew the darkness and misery of living there.

Kate did not see the other rooms: the bedroom in which Jessica’s baby, her mother and her grubby and silent great-aunt slept, and in which Jessica and her latest punter would sometimes spend a night. All generations of the Tanner household were party to Jessica’s dishonour. The scullery was equally hateful: crumbling walls, yellow with age and oozing damp; a stink of human excrement from the blocked drain where a toilet had once stood; the musty air where one could feel bugs of cholera and typhoid and tuberculosis penetrating the pans and plates and cups from which the Tanners ate and drank.

Kate had felt enormously relieved after she had seen the Tanner’s house because she knew she lived so much more healthily and respectably than them. But she also knew that, however much their vacant faces suggested otherwise, the Tanners were human beings: in nature, if not in existence. Their house should have been condemned, and Kate did indeed condemn it. But this did the Tanners no good at all. They continued their lives for the good of nobody, least of all themselves.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Chapters II and III


As evening came and the sky moved from grey to purple, it occurred to Reverend Dalrymple that he had not slept since he had entered the Bubble. He sat (though there was nothing physical to support his haunches) in the centre of the sphere of air and looked to his left and right, above him and below him. Everywhere there was hubbub: people swimming through the air, learning how to move again, trying to relocate their possessions, or their wives, husbands, children and parents. Reverend Dalrymple felt like he was on an early evening train, watching people who had just begun their journeys settle down before night. The Reverend had only brought the clothes he wore into the Bubble with him: these and the Bubble itself were his only possessions. He found it relaxing watching others rush about and it made him feel tired. As the Bubble rolled through Crewkerne and Yeovil, scarfing up more towns and villages on the way, the Reverend realised he didn’t need to steer it anymore. It would roll on through the night all by itself. He fell asleep, knowing they would be in London by morning.

That night the Reverend Dalrymple had a dream. It was Sunday and he was in St. Mary’s church. The choir had led a boisterous rendition of Joy to the World and now the hymn had come to an end. Reverend Dalrymple got up to the pulpit and began his sermon, which this week was a topical one, reassuring any doubters that the stories they may have heard from London of revolutionaries plotting the end of civilisation were false and that any such plots would never succeed and that God’s will alone would lead the righteous man into the kingdom of heaven. He believed not a word of what he preached, but he was under orders from the Bishop to perpetuate anti-insurgency messages, and so this he did.

Yet as he preached his message, designed to deter any latent radicals and placate Joanna and her more standpat brethren, he began to notice that the attention of his audience was waning. While their heads still faced him their eyes pointed upwards so that their eyeballs sunk into their skulls with only the whites showing. He continued with the sermon, for it was good one, full of mild menace, but it was clear that nobody, not even his faithful Joanna, was listening. Feeling a cold breeze on the top of his head he looked upwards. The high gabled roof of the church had opened up, as if on hinges, so that a ceiling of blue cloudless sky covered them. The Reverend persisted with his address but a mind-numbing metallic noise had started loudly and suddenly. It sounded like a thousand sharp fingernails shrieking down a blackboard and it soon flooded the church. Sometimes for a few seconds the roar stopped and a strange melody would take its place. It sounded like three saxophones having a fight with a petrified piano tinkling behind a mad grandmother. Then the wall of sound would return, sounding like a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs. The noise was unbearable to the Reverend but his congregation all looked upwards with passion and zeal, as though what they heard was the sound of salvation. The Reverend, whose words were evaporating into the air, stopped his sermon and looked up at the sky. In precisely the middle of his field of vision he saw what looked like a bird, a roughly circular object with indistinct edges, high overhead. The bird grew larger as it fell closer to the church. The Reverend realised that the bird was the source of the machine-like noise and when it fell to within fifty feet of the church, the Reverend realised that it was not a bird but a man with a parachute. The man fell delicately to the stone floor near the altar and untangled himself from the fabric of the parachute. When the man’s mouth moved the Reverend could only hear those strange, awful melodies, and when the mouth stopped moving he could only hear white noise.

But his congregation (who, the sleeping priest decided, must be true believers) heard what the man had to say. While the Reverend heard the dreadful squall of noise, they heard a choir – four men and three boys – singing the most heavenly prayer they had ever heard. Their voices merged together in perfect harmony. The men sang with the wisdom of a hundred years and the boys with lustral simplicity. The hymn brought tears to the eyes of its audience and seemed to summon the man to the ground. When he hit the ground, he read out a lesson which Reverend Dalrymple did not hear. And with that he pointed to Joanna in the front row and demanded she accompany him to her house and cook him a large breakfast of sausages, bacon, eggs, tomatoes and fried bread. The congregation followed the couple and the Reverend realised that his part in the dream was over and that he did not exist anymore.


It was widely known that London, Manchester, Birmingham and the other big cities were no places to raise a child. No boy went to school, except those that had been turned into factories. The alleyways in which William Blackstock’s children once played had been colonized by rats. Where once Mrs Blackstock stood in her modest kitchen teaching her little ones the ABC while she roasted a joint, now there was an empty larder and a sunken child upstairs in bed with a towel on its forehead, drenched in noxious sweat. Laughter had given way to sobbing. Skin and gristle clung to people’s bones like seaweed on a shipwreck. Poverty had been removed because now everyone was poor.

The winter had been heavy and grey. The world had stayed multi-coloured, but it did not seem like it. The grass was the same colour as they sky. The faces of men had less spirit than the faces of buildings. Today was the same as yesterday and tomorrow would be the same as today. In the towns and cities life was especially harsh. The government had been in power for years – too many years – but since no one knew how to get rid of it, it went on ruling.

For a while the men in the Cabinet had worried that its people would rise up. Rebel groups of workers had tried to revolt against their bosses every other week and pubs all over Southwark and Wapping hosted lock-ins after closing time. The pubs, if caught, pled guilt to the charge of furnishing their nocturnal punters with illicit alcohol, on the grounds that willing submission and subsequent penance would deter the authorities from the real raison d’être of these groups: dissent, revolution and the denial of God. At this time there were a number of more official working men’s clubs in London into which one paid a nominal weekly subscription. In becoming a member of such a group, a man would come as close as he possibly could to fulfilling his birthright through democratic legitimacy. Because of this, because they made a man feel like the ruler of his kingdom within, these groups were often very popular with local working men. They were much less often influential, however, and the police would frequently carry out night-time raids, arresting a brace of dissidents with a charge of treason or some such. To claim dominion of one’s kingdom within, let alone the kingdom without, was deemed by those in charge to be tantamount to anarchy, and so dissidents were treated harshly. In such a climate of fear, revolution was never really possible. The more level-headed and quietist workers knew that, while they could not forego the liberties that were their birthright, now was not the time for insurrection. Nowadays, most people were too weak and stupid to fight. They could barely raise the energy to get up and go to work in the morning.

Every sensible person knew that such inhumanity could not persist. But for each person who recognised this there was a different solution. Many saw salvation in God. There was Joanna and her lot; Moravians from central Europe; there were Quakers and Methodists and Anabaptists and all strains of faith in between. Others thought the cure to England’s illness was to be found abroad. From there came tales – urban legends most likely – of riots and revolts and mutinies against tyrants and despots. These stories travelled to London in the most fancy prose, and differed depending on whom you talked to. Some people pointed to Europe and made it known that every man had a vote or that every man earned enough money to feed his family. But others (most actually) said that the stories were made up or that the revolutionaries were un-Christian or that it was God’s will that some are rich and some are poor.

William Blackstock was brighter than anybody else he knew. He had received some education as a child – not much, but enough to persuade him that his enquiring mind was not the loathsome and perverted thing that some people suspected it was. He was also, somehow, less poor than almost anybody else he knew. True, the Blackstocks were poor. They lived on the breadline. But a small inheritance from William’s mother, a trifling salary from the factory and a certain hard-nosed enterprise meant that they were not disgustingly poor. They would always somehow, by fair means or foul, be clothed, sheltered, fed and watered. In this respect the Blackstocks were a rare breed indeed.

William was a rebel at heart but his sons’ school had closed down and even if he could afford to buy anything there were no shops. It was as much as he could do to get up in the morning, earn his measly wage, and enjoy the escape that sleep afforded him.

He worked in a factory which produced armaments. These were intended for use if there was an insurgency or a war and lay piled in warehouses or underground. The factory also produced some domestic items for export. They were very useful things, factories, because they let their owners get very rich a long way away from the public’s gaze. They also kept unemployment figures down. William was paid what his bosses considered enough for a four-week period. This was paid to him in vouchers on the first day of each calendar month.

“William, that wage of yours just won’t do,” his wife Kate said to him over and over. “We can’t stretch it across the four of us. Not for another month. What about the children?”

“It’s a good wage!” thundered William, knowing full well it was not. “What am I supposed to do? It’s our money. I’ve earned it. It’s hopeless but it’s ours. I earned it.” But William knew his boys would get no new clothes unless they stole, which they did. They were sent on errands by their mother and father to get loaves or potatoes from wherever they could. They did this with skill and zeal. Because of these sins, the church had an irresistible pull. It is a quirk of the human thirst for religion that God becomes most popular at times when He appears least interested. So while Charlie and Tom scavenged for food, William and Kate would pray forgiveness for their crimes. Their prayers rarely got a response.

“Well done, William,” the priest would say as they left. “Well done, Kate. Will I see you next week?”

“Can’t see why not.” With that, William and Kate would walk back home to look at their children’s spoils. And returning to find his cupboard bare, William would go to the pub and dilute his misery with cheap ale which he bought on credit. After a while – three or four pints, perhaps – the topic of conversation would always turn to violence. Blowing things up or blowing people up or bludgeoning their bosses or the government to death. Tonight the quarry was the royal family. There had been a story in the paper about increased protection to Her Majesty the Queen. Extra police were to guard the Palace or Palaces which were deemed by the government to be most vulnerable. The extra police would be mounted on horses and would stand outside the Palace or Palaces around-the-clock, weekdays and weekends, indefinitely, whether a member of the family was in residence or not.

“Horses!” cried Mickey Pabey, on his fifth pint. “Horses! As if your constabulary wasn’t bad enough, they bring in bloody great horses!”

“Appealing to your sympathetic side, Mickey.”


“You’d never shoot your way through a horse, would you, or blow one up. You’d blow up a policeman, but you’d never blow up a horse.”

“Never. But where will they get them? Farmers? Knacker’s yards? Racecourses and paddocks more like, racecourses and paddocks! Does that woman want to take any more of the few pleasures in life away from me?”

“Ah, you poor thing,” said Frank Boatwright without sympathy. “No horses for you to waste your money on.”

“You’ll have to go back to wasting it on women, Mickey.”

“Waste? It’s no waste. It’s my money to waste how I like.”

“There could be fame in it for them, Mickey. Heroic horses!” said Olin Bucarem, a second-generation Venezuelan who had recently returned to London from an extended five-year holiday in Ireland, and had been taken to heart by the boys for his prodigious drinking and aberrant sense of humour.

“Those horses don’t do anybody any good anyway. May as well give them a break.”

“Give them a break?” blared Mickey Pabey. “Give them a break he says! Since when has standing stock-still in a busy London street with some fat-arsed copper sitting on your back kicking your tits with his hobnail boots been a break?” William laughed. Frank Boatwright had just put his fourth pint in front of him. Ought to get a move on with this one now. Don’t want to lag behind. And they’re the ones doing all the talking. How do they do that? Good drinkers. Strong bladders too. Best store it up for now, until you really need it. Feel the full force of it gushing out. Proper oomph against the porcelain. And noisy too, like torrential rain or a waterfall. Thinking about it makes you want to go. Better go.

“’Scuse me lads. Call of nature.” William climbed out from the table and sauntered to the bathroom.

“Look – imagine you were a horse. Frank – all your life you’ve worked in parks. You walk the parks, pick up litter, mow the lawn. In the summer you look out for the girls with no tops on, the sunbathers. In the winter you sit in your cabin and dream of the summer. And then suddenly, some bastard comes along and tells you you’re going to be the man who stands between some psycho with a hand grenade and the queen. Yes, yes, it’s a break. It’s fame alright. Front of all the papers on Tuesday, your name in lights! It’s a load of bollocks. What’s she done for me? Tell me that.”

Henly’s was the ideal place for these sort of arguments, filled as it was with poets, mutineers, fraudsters, armaments workers, painters, faceless bureaucrats, runaways, freaks, and any other group of outcasts with nothing to live for. The punters at Henly’s had nothing in common and they had everything in common. They spoke different languages but all contained the same feeling that their spirits were stifled, their natural fervour kept at bay by a need to plod the dreary path that had been prepared for them. Henly’s allowed them a space where anything could happen at any moment: an opportunity to live out the fantasies that each knew should be their reality. By the window sat Son McLanahan, sometimes with a comrade or two, sometimes left alone (but never isolated), gazing up at the stars through wet, woozy eyes, concocting delirious designs to blow up the queen, and take the rest of society with her, so that human history could finally begin.

While Son dreamed and barked instructions to himself – and we will hear more of them later – the others would watch some cabaret artiste that the landlord had put on to titillate the lads after church. They all hated her, but what could they do? She would sing some well-known songs that all of them sang numbly along with, and then she would tease one of them. She would go from being a person to an artiste to an arrangement of flesh and suggestions – a moving object. The lads would get horny and feel like they were powerful. Sometimes they fought over her. They all thought they could fuck her if they wanted to, but when the landlord called time and the cabaret artiste got up off the floor and went backstage to change in the loo, the lads joked with each other and called her a slag or a whore or an easy lay and fantasised what they could have done to her had time been on their side. After this, William would return home, his belly too full of beer to yearn for food, his mind too fuddled to wish for a better life. “Do you love me?” said William thickly to his wife as he got into bed. But she was asleep and did not reply. Next morning he would awake to more clouds and smoke and fog and joyless, thrashing labour.


Saturday, June 24, 2006

Chapter I

Whate’er is done to her she cannot know,
And if you’ll ask her she will swear it so.
Whether ‘tis good or evil none’s to blame:
No one can take the pride, no one the shame.



Winter had been so crushing that a brief moment of joy in the Devon countryside passed most people by. It was Christmas and people were trying to forget about the weather to celebrate with family and friends. For most the festivities were only fleeting: within days they would return to work and become lifeless and neutral again. But for the people of Ottery St. Mary in Devon, life began anew.
The Bubble emerged two days after Christmas. On Christmas Day its mother, Joanna, had said several times how she needed to defecate. On St. Stephen’s Day this need had passed and was replaced by a rumbling in her gut which moved upwards from her bowel to her oesophagus. She felt her windpipe close and her abdominal wall and diaphragm muscles tighten suddenly and forcefully. Her stomach was limp and passive. She wanted to vomit. The following day, the Bubble appeared from her womb after several hours of enforced peristalsis. Shortly afterwards Joanna fell into a deep and permanent sleep. Nobody except Joanna and the Reverend Dalrymple bore witness to the labour. After her death, her body was wrapped in flannel and kept warm with hot-water bottles in the expectation that she would come to life again.
"So where did it come from?” a priest from a neighbouring parish had asked.
“She has never known a man, as far as I know,” said his friend, “and certainly not a man capable of producing a Bubble.” Joanna had made a name for herself in her sixty-five years. She was born in a Devon farmhouse and her parents knew right away that she would be a woman of high rank, in some way or other. Her mother quickly spread the word among friends that Joanna was a daughter of Christ, which led them to ask,
“But can any good thing come out of Devon?” This has since become something of a saying in that part of the world.
Joanna’s first years were uneventful, but one morning she woke up and went to work in the great house in the town as usual and told her friend the cook that lean times were on the way, that poverty would soon be widespread, that her husband should stock up on provisions and that she, the cook, should be frugal.
“Joanna,” the cook replied, “you speak as if you were a prophetess!” And Joanna, with a grin on her face and a glint in her eye, proclaimed:
“And so I am!” With that, Joanna became a real prophetess, writing leaflets about how God would save her and all who believed in her, which she gave to her followers and which got into the hands of congregations across the country. But as far as anyone knew Joanna had never slept with a man and, at sixty-five years of age, it was deemed unlikely she ever would.
But while the town asked questions, there could be no doubt that the Bubble had cast a spell over it. Nobody had seen it but everyone assumed that it was in the hands of Reverend Dalrymple, the parish priest, whom Joanna had married in order to make the Bubble legitimate and who had not been seen since.
When Joanna claimed her pregnancy, the Reverend Dalrymple himself was one of the cynics. Joanna tried to convince him by quoting passages from the Bible, chapters from Genesis mainly. At first he resisted. But, as a favour to this most devoted of God’s children, he arranged for some of the top physicians from Bath and Gloucester and Exeter and London to inspect Joanna. They arrived as sceptics, but when they saw Joanna (who was now eating nothing but asparagus) and her belly, all but one pronounced her at an advanced stage of gestation.
Joanna’s last words to the vicar before perishing were that her Bubble would deliver us from evil. All mankind would be saved. God had told Joanna this and Joanna had told her friends again and again. They all took her words as articles of faith. The vicar himself did not believe that the redemption of all mankind was desirable. Nevertheless, in the hours immediately following its emergence, he took the Bubble, popped it in a jar, and took it down to the altar in St. Mary’s Church, a grand basilica on a hill. He stored the jar immediately in front of the altar, away from the glare of the stained glass.
When Reverend Dalrymple went into St. Mary’s a day or two later to prepare for the New Year service he found that the altar had been flipped over by the Bubble, which had by now taken over the entire altar, choir and vestry. The Reverend, seeing a passport to heaven, ran home to get stocks of bread and wine, and ran quickly back, locking the doors of the church behind him. The vicar stayed in St. Mary’s, waiting. On the third day, the Bubble swallowed him and his bread and wine up. Together, they smashed down the church walls and began the skulk around the churchyard.
Before the Bubble had swallowed Reverend Dalrymple it had been a wholly primal being. But with Reverend Dalrymple aboard it began to develop a heart and a soul and an intellect. Its air and its liquid film had become humanised. The Reverend had been infused into the Bubble without piercing its exterior and without carrying any extra air or other foreign matter in with him. Its air supply having been quickly exhausted by the Reverend breathing too much, the Bubble had to repair its molecular structure to ensure that its membrane remained in tact, and that its passenger did not drift in one direction or another. So there the Reverend hung, suspended and always quite upright, while the Bubble prowled, exploring its surroundings.
At first the Bubble maintained a strict diet of chlorophyll, which it got from the trees and bushes of the churchyard, and protein, which it got from sucking the innards of small insects and crustaceans. The Reverend had no control over what the Bubble ate, but by force of will he had ensured that its waste products floated at a safe distance from himself. He was also beginning to master steering the Bubble. After two days of scouring the churchyard, the Bubble had achieved the size of a small house. The Reverend’s sense of direction had grown in confidence and he felt it was time to go down to the town. He gave a little kick with his right foot. For some reason which he suspected did not have its roots in physics this seemed to rouse the Bubble. They began to roll down the hill to the town, slowly at first but soon accelerating. They passed a sparse, skeletal copse, which surrounded a deep black pond. The Devonshire fields, filled with corn and rape in the summer, were covered with claggy soil, with only a few sprigs of tired looking grass protruding. Against an off-white sky a flock of geese flew high overhead on their way south. They did not bother to look down on Ottery St Mary.
New Year’s Day was usually the first day after Christmas when the town had a chance to get together, gossip and swap festive stories. This year, though, the town talked only of the Bubble. At the service on Christmas Day, Joanna had not been present and none of the town could remember the last time Joanna had missed a service. The priest had explained to them that she was expected to give birth at any moment, and reminded them of Joanna’s conversations with God that her son was to be the redeemer. Since then they had heard rumours about their saviour – a Bubble – and how it was being imprisoned in the church or the vicarage or the wood or somewhere on the hill. The town was entirely united on this issue: they had to see the Bubble.
The Bubble had manoeuvred itself down the final stretch of the hill and reached the centre of the town, and there a swarm of people stood, or were milling around, waiting for it. It seemed as though the whole town had turned out, from the eldest to the newest-born babies. Mr Seggar, who lived in the house on the westernmost tip of the town, had been the first to see the Bubble making its descent from the church. Upon seeing it from his window he had hurried outside and ran to his nearest neighbour a few hundred yards down the path. His neighbour did the same until, like a set of dominoes, the message spread through the town and out the other side.
It was Mr Seggar who stood at the front of the group as the Bubble came to a halt in front of them. For a while nobody said anything. Reverend Dalrymple had not seen human beings since he and the Bubble had merged. Looking down upon their eager, vacant faces he felt like he was in the pulpit on Sunday, about to give a sermon. It occurred to him that he had not attempted to speak since he had entered the Bubble. He did not quite know what to say. The crowd was equally dumbstruck as they waited for Mr Seggar, their appointed spokesman, to begin the exchange.
Mr Seggar was the local builder and odd-jobs man. Every day except Sunday he worked something like a seven hour day, although his hours varied significantly. He had a voracious appetite for beer, and the previous night had been spent making up for the evenings when the pub had been shut. His blowzy cheeks were redder than ever and the whites of his eyes matched. A thick, viscous sweat oozed from his brow. His head was heavy and his throat dry.
“Go on, Bill – say something,” prompted Mrs Ellis. Mr Seggar shut his eyes and tried to adjust his focus from his bowels and up towards his brain. He pictured his nervous tissue and grey matter and wondered which bits were for formulating speech. Drink doesn’t kill brain cells. Didn’t doctors once think about using it as an anaesthetic? How would that work? Doctor would have to listen to you talking rubbish about the girl you’d met at school, who you secretly loved, and who you later found out loved you too, but who married a man she never loved at all and moved away. Aah. Should have married her etc etc. Then – finally – you’d fall asleep and the operation could begin. He opened his eyes again. The sight of a forty foot Bubble rearing over him made him dizzy. What do you say to a Bubble? What do you say to a Bubble that has come to save all mankind? What do you say to God?
“Excuse me, aah – ” Mr Seggar swallowed, hoping in vain for some saliva to moisten his throat. “You there, erm – ”
“You talking to the vicar or that thing?” Mrs Ellis whispered.
“Which do you think?”
“Start with the vicar, I reckon. The thing don’t have a mouth.”
“Right you are. The vicar. I’ll start with the vicar.” Mr Seggar tried to sound in control. “Now, your Reverence, we’d like you to tell us, if you wouldn’t mind, what – what this is all about.” His enquiry was intended to be firm and frank. The Reverend Dalrymple was supposed to be coerced into admitting he had hijacked the Bubble. But Mr Seggar sounded apologetic. The people in the town tried to wrest the initiative.
“I reckon that’s the thing Miss Joanna was predicting,” said one of them. “The baby, I mean. She said it was going to have powers.”
“That’s right. Meant to save us from our sins, according to what she said.”
“But it ain’t no baby though is it? That’s no baby. It’s a thing of some sort, and maybe it came from Joanna, but it’s not a baby.” A friend of Joanna, who considered himself a thinker, confirmed their suspicions.
“Joanna recited from the book of Genesis, didn’t she? Well then: the baby will have gone up to the heavens. God will have picked the little chap up and delivered him upwards.”
“So what’s that?” a couple of women at the front said again, pointing at the Bubble. The villagers turned again to Mr Seggar. They had done the difficult bit. They had worked out that Joanna had died in childbirth and had given birth to a spirit child who would save all mankind. It was up to Mr Seggar to do the rest. After another period of brief thought, he turned again to the Bubble and asked:
“Are you God?” It was not clear whether the question was intended for the Bubble or the vicar. Reverend Dalrymple heard only snatches of the conversation. He was not much interested in what they had to say. But he had noticed that the Bubble was becoming more amorphous. He was not worried that its film would burst – for some reason this never seemed in doubt – but he was concerned that the Bubble may lose its shape and collapse, suffocating him in the process. He had given the people a chance to ask their questions and to debate the thing among themselves. It was now his duty – to the Bubble, to himself, and to his flock – to take them in. With another little kick from the Reverend, the Bubble moved forward, wobbling a little at first as it regained its shape, but soon rolling with authority as it consumed the contents of the town: houses, shops, the village green, the lambs in the fields, all manner of household furniture, utensils, ornaments and food, and the people of Ottery St. Mary. Mr Seggar became the second human to enter the Bubble after Reverend Dalrymple and he was quickly followed by Mrs Ellis, her four children, Joanna’s friend Mr Tozer, and the rest.