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.


Blogger Newfred said...

Well I've read the first chapter -- looking forward to the next one! Won't say any more for now as I'm interested to see where you're taking it.

3:44 PM  
Blogger minifig said...

Enjoyed this (although, of course, it's my second time). Were the names made up by you, or did you take them from elsewhere?

7:39 AM  

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