Published in Interzone, October 2008.
(Collected in The Peacock Cloak from Newcon Press)
Rat Island © Chris Beckett, 2008. Not to be reproduced without author’s permission. If you want to share this story with others, please share a link to this post.
I took this picture when I was eleven. This tall man is my dad, his face in a kind of frozen wince, wishing he was back in his Whitehall office on his own, going through a draft report with his gold fountain pen. This pretty little girl is my sister, Clarrie, in her new red coat and fluffy earmuffs. She looks a bit blurred because she is doing a pirouette. She has just pushed my father’s arm up into that position, rather as if he was a tailor’s dummy and she is pirouetting round and round beneath it, while he thinks about something else. She would have been seven.
We’re in Piccadilly Circus, on the steps at the foot of the statue of Eros. Behind us are the famous lights. They were quite wonderful: reckless waves of colour sweeping across vast arrays of electric bulbs to summon into brilliant existence the giant logos of global corporations – Coca-Cola, TDK, Sanyo, Cinzano – more vivid and numinous and beautiful, surely, than any religious icon in history.
Incredible folly, blind recklessness, it all now seems – blazing electric light for no purpose at all except advertising and decoration – but it was a golden age, one of the pinnacles of history. We lived in an empire of light and plenty, fuelled by the ancient energy of ancient suns stored up over millions of years and burned up by us in one great glorious hundred-year binge.‘Round and round the garden,’ sings out my sister for the tenth time, putting on even more of a baby voice, and turning up the volume to VERY LOUD. She glances at my dad with a mixture of defiance and longing and contempt.
She is being silly. She is being annoying. She is doing it on purpose. Dad’s face is taut with the agony of being kept from his world of abstract thought. If there was a deeper despair there than I’d noticed on previous visits, well, I couldn’t see it then and, to be truthful, I still can’t see it now, even looking at the pictures with all my knowledge of what was to follow.
‘You’re being a bit annoying Clarrie,’ I muttered.
Now, from this long perspective, I see something heroic in Clarrie’s refusal to give up on the possibility of getting our father’s attention, or on the possibility that there might be fun here to be had. There was something heroic about my sister. There was then, and there continued to be, until the day she died. No matter what, she insisted on her right to her own space in the world. She insisted on her right to be noticed and heard.
But then I couldn’t bear it if anyone was not as attentive to my father’s moods and responses as I was. The slightest smile from him and I would redouble my efforts at whatever it was I was doing to win his favour. The slightest frown, the slightest hint of boredom, and I would either end what I was doing at once, or, in the event that politeness required me to finish what I was saying, I would double the speed of my delivery so as to waste the absolute minimum of his precious time, gabbling to get the words out before I’d lost his attention altogether.
‘I’m not being annoying,’ Clarrie said. ‘You are. You are. You are.’
Snap. Dad winced.
We only saw our father four times a year. We lived in Yorkshire at that time, in a little bohemian town with my beautiful artistic mother and a steady succession of her lovers. Dad was a mandarin, a senior civil servant. They’d split up soon after Clarrie’s birth. At the time I took this photo, Dad was assistant Permanent Secretary in the Department of Strategic Planning. He lived on his own in a bachelor flat in Kensington, and we came down by train to spend the weekend with him a few times a year. We and he were almost complete strangers to one another.
‘Round and round the garden,’ yelled Clarrie, yanking at Dad’s hand to try and get him to join in, to respond, to do at least something to register that he was alive and that he had noticed that she was there. I think she would have been glad even if he had lost his temper with her. Even that would have been preferable to this bland indifference, letting her use his clean dry mandarin’s hand as a fulcrum for her frantic pirouette while he considered the faraway important things that only mandarins understand.
‘Round and round the garden, Dad,’ she yelled.
‘Round and round the garden?’ says Dad at length, stirring himself from his state of trance. ‘Round and round the garden eh Clarrie? Time I got you two back in the warm, I’d say. It’s a bit chilly now for round and round the garden here, wouldn’t you say? A bit chilly for little girls.’
He releases her hand. We cross the road. We head for the underground station.
Snap, snap. Here is the big SANYO sign. Here is the statue of Eros: the god of love. Those things there are buses and cars. They ran on tanks full of hydrocarbons extracted from the earth. Imagine that: each one of them, burning litres and litres of the stuff every day! It came in great ships from across the sea. The ships burned hydrocarbons too. And look at all the lights: lights in the shopfronts, lights on lamp-posts, lights at street corners that changed from red to green to tell them when to stop and when to go…
Hydrocarbons were burnt in power stations up and down the land to keep those lights shining: millions of years-worth of carboniferous forest going up in one great glorious blaze.
Clarrie pushes between my father and me, makes each of us take one of her hands, tries to encourage us to give her a swing. And then, encountering indifference from both of us, she abruptly shakes herself free with a cross little toss of her head and rushes forward to the gateway of the underground station with its shining icon: red, white, blue.
‘I want to go first on the sclator!’ she cries, glaring back at me. ‘You are not to hold my hand, Tom!’
Snap, snap. These are just some strangers, some passers-by who I photographed when they weren’t looking. You see they are wearing hemispherical goggles over their eyes. Those things were called bug eyes. They were all the rage back then. They were the next big thing after mobile telephones and hand-held computers. People wearing them could have their own personalised visual field imposed over their view of the world around them. They could have the colours enhanced or switched round. They could have purple trees and yellow sky. They could have black light and white darkness. They could have pop videos or pornography or sport or celebrities moving in shadow form over the physical world. They could see the faces of friends and talk to them. They could buy things and sell things as they walked.
The clever goggles could sense the movement of your facial muscles and construct a picture of your face without a camera. All around us people were prattling away to unseen people that only they could see. We were already letting go of the physical world. Without even knowing it, we were already letting go.
‘Careful on the steps, Clarrie,’ I commanded as we descended to the yellow cave below the ground.
We’d always looked out for each other, the two of us. Mum wasn’t at all like Dad in most ways but she was just as self-absorbed.
Look at this pair. Another two strangers I snapped before we disappeared under the earth. They’re young lovers, lovers together in the very presence of the god of love, but they both have their bug eyes on and are gabbling away not to each other but to friends not physically there at all but perhaps on the far side of the city or even on the far side of the world. Rockets fuelled with hydrocarbons blasted satellites into space to carry our chitter-chatter back and forth. Giant transmitters powered by electricity beamed out our chitter-chatter to the silent stars. We loved our toys back then, our bright lights, our screens, our shining trains rushing out of black tunnels into brightly lit caves that were filled with giant images of the things that we could buy.
‘Hmm,’ says my father, sotto voce, for my ears only, as we descend into the hollow spaces below Piccadilly Circus. ‘Might be the last time you see all this I fear.’ and he gives a gesture that takes in the lights and the cars and the buses and the crowds.
I look up at him to ask what on earth he means, and he gives a little significant nod towards my sister to say ‘not in front of her’, as though the four years between my age and hers have somehow made me old enough to deal with anything.
* * *
Snap, snap. Here we are in the train, look. Everyone has their bug eyes on but us, everyone but us and that weirdo in the corner who is mad and can escape to his own private world without the benefit of technology. Nobody else really sees him. He is muttering and chuckling to himself, sometimes scribbling urgently in some kind of notebook. People turn the opacity of their goggles up the max. The outside world is all but shut out completely for them. Wireless routers in the train ensure that even entombed down here in the cold London clay, the passengers are not forced to relinquish their comforting streams of pictures and words and sounds. Like Jonah in the belly of the whale, they call out from the depths, and the digital heavens answer them. Incessantly, like the love of God, data pours down.
Snap. There were moving advertisements in trains then, pictures shifting constantly through ten- or twenty-second cycles. Over the window opposite me, above my own reflected face superimposed on sooty tunnel walls, one of these moving pictures was showing a hurricane sweeping through some Caribbean town. I did a little video clip of it, look. The palm-trees bend down, lay their coconuts neatly on the ground in rows, bend back up again… A slogan comes up: ‘What are you doing to cut your carbon emissions?’
Was that what my father meant, I wondered? Were we going to have to turn off the lights in Piccadilly Circus maybe, or turn them down so they weren’t so bright? Was that what he was talking about? I knew there was a problem and we were going to have to do something. Everyone knew that. Everyone knew that we all had to do our bit. My mother was very into all that. She made us recycle just about everything. She had low-energy lightbulbs all through the house. She planted a tree in the garden each time she flew off across the world with her latest fancy man. I can tell you, we had quite a forest going on out there, though many of the trees had died.
Snap. Here’s Clarrie again. Look, she’s insisted on sitting apart from my father and me, on her own, in a different part of the carriage. She’s on the edge of her seat, excited, revering the moment as only Clarrie ever could, taking in the wondrous magical metropolis with all its reckless light and motion. I loved her desperately, that little sister of mine. I loved her more than anyone in the world.
* * *
Snap, snap. This is just off the street near my dad’s flat: a side alley where people left their rubbish: food scraps, boxes, plastic bags, tons of the stuff, to be scooped up every fortnight into big trucks and taken out of the city to be piled up in the low seagull-infested artificial hills that you found near every town. Look, here are a couple of foxes looking for scraps. Can you make them out?
They had red fur really, but they look grey and ghostly in the picture because of the streetlights. If you had bug eyes on, even on low opacity, you’d probably not notice they were there. It was like that in those days. It was as if the non-human world was slowly leaching away. One day we’d wake up and it would all be gone: the deer and the foxes and the hedgehogs and the pigeons, finally become so nebulous and pale that they’d ceased to exist, unable to compete with our TVs and bug eyes and our shining lights.
* * *
My father’s flat was as sterile as a hotel room. It was a serviced apartment. Someone from the service company came in to clean it every morning and make his bed, a Russian, a Filipino, a Nigerian… At that time British people worked on computer screens or not at all. They dealt with digitised information. Work that involved the physical world was always done by migrants, who were nearly as invisible as those foxes.
My father had pushed the boat out for us this time. It wasn’t a supermarket ready meal that night. He’d paid one or other of his cleaners to put something together earlier that day that he could heat up for us in his microwave. It was lasagne, I remember, a rather leathery lasagne. We ate it in virtual silence, sitting round his shiny empty wooden table, with the fake flames dancing about in his fake fire.
Pretty soon afterwards, he put Clarrie to bed, reading her a story from an old book whose archaic language she didn’t understand, and whose attempts at humour went completely over her head. (Dad never seemed to notice things like that.) I was allowed to stay up another hour in deference to my advanced age. Dutifully I loaded the dishes into his little dishwasher while he finished reading to Clarrie.
‘Where do you put your bottles Dad?’ I asked him when he returned.
‘What do you mean?’
He laughed at this.
‘Recycling? Oh Tom, Tom, it’s a bit late for that.’
I wasn’t sure what he meant.
‘They’ve already picked the glass up for this week, have they?’
‘No, no. I’m mean it’s a bit late to try and save the world by recycling bottles…That would be like…. That would be like trying to stop the tide with a teaspoon.’
He laughed a bit more.
‘A glass of wine Tom?’ he then asked me. ‘I think you’re old enough for a glass.’
I hated the stuff actually, but I didn’t like to reject anything from him, because I saw him so rarely, and because I didn’t want him to doubt, even for one moment, my devotion. He poured me dry white wine, and I sat at his table and sipped it manfully. He downed his first glass almost in one and poured himself a second.
‘I didn’t like to say it in front of Clarrie, Tom,’ he then said, ‘but things are looking pretty bleak.’
His voice was very tight as if he was stifling anger or tears or illicit excitement. I couldn’t tell which.
‘What? The lights? They’re going to have to turn them off?’
‘Turn off the lights? What on Earth are you talking about?’
‘In Piccadilly Circus’
He banged his glass angrily down on the the table.
‘Oh for goodness sake, Thomas. Do they teach you nothing in that appalling school of yours?’
He might as well have whipped me with razor wire. Tears of shame came stinging into my eyes. I hung my head, with self-loathing blasting through me like an icy gale. Yet I had no idea what I had said wrong. I was only eleven years old after all.
For something to do I picked up my camera, fiddled with it. Snap, the flash went off. (Look, here is the picture I took by mistake. Here is my right foot and my father’s blue serviced-apartment carpet.)
‘Oh for goodness sake, boy, stop fiddling with that thing!’
I laid the camera down. My father snatched up the wine bottle and poured himself another glass.
‘It’s not a question of a few lights, Tom, as you should know perfectly well by now. Equilibrium has disappeared beyond our reach. Four or five major positive feedback loops are now accelerating out of control, each one amplifying the others: arctic methane, water vapour, the loss of ice cover to reflect the sun, dying forests…’
He downed the second glass, again in one, and reached for the bottle
‘A while back a couple of our scientists did a little experiment. A breeding pair of rats was introduced to an obscure rock in the Atlantic which had previously been inhabited by nothing but millions of seabirds. The rats ate eggs and baby birds and they prospered and multiplied. Soon there were hundreds of them. But there were millions of birds, so that some time went by without the rats making any appreciable dent in their numbers at all. They just kept on breeding and breeding and breeding, eating birds and eggs to their heart’s content.’
He was pouring himself yet another glass.
‘But a moment came when the entire system reached a point of no return, a point where collapse was inevitable, because the bird population was no longer capable of reproducing fast enough to replace the eggs and babies eaten by the rats. You might think that some visible sign of the approaching famine would be apparent to the rats, but no. Even when the point of no return had been reached and passed, there were more rats than ever before and they still had plenty to eat. In fact if you were a rat you might have thought to yourself that you’d never had it so good. You might feel as happy and as cheery and as prosperous as all those silly people milling round Piccadilly Circus with their ridiculous goggles on, shopping and going to shows and talking about Christmas and next year’s holiday. “There are lots more nests,” a rat might think, if it were capable of thinking, as it gobbled up the contents of one nest and moved on to the next. “There are nests all over the place,” it might say to itself. And it would be quite right. It’s just that this time round the rats weren’t eating a small percentage of the nests, they were eating them all. Once those nests had gone there would be nothing left.’
Again he downed his wine in one gulp. Even at eleven years old I knew this was pretty fast drinking.
‘Well, that’s how it is with us. The critical moment has been and gone. We can recycle bottles and build windmills to our heart’s content, but it’s too late. The moment when we could do anything about it passed about ten years ago.’
He gave a bark of humourless laughter and said nothing for a while, turning his empty wine glass back and forth in his hand. After a time he poured himself yet more wine, offering me a top-up which I declined.
‘Can you keep a secret Tom?’ he asked.
I nodded, though I dreaded what he would say next.
‘This is an Official Secret, Tom, do you understand? You mustn’t tell anyone, no one at all, not even your mother.’
Again I nodded, not because I wanted him to go on – I really didn’t – but because I couldn’t see what else I could do. It was out of the question to tell him to keep his official secret to himself, though that was what I should have done. I should have told him I didn’t want his miserable secret. I should have told him that, if this secret was so terrible as to be hidden from the entire population, it really wasn’t fair to confide it to a little boy of eleven, and then ask him to keep it. But back then I wasn’t even able to frame the idea of saying such things to him.
‘This is just between you and me Tom, as long as you understand that. This must not get out. But the fact is we’ve got two or three years at most before it all comes apart. The climate science, the really serious climate science, is all classified nowadays – it’s just too sensitive to let out – so you won’t have heard about it, but I can assure you it’s much much worse than we thought possible even a few years ago. We underestimated those positive feedback loops, you see. The arctic methane. The water vapour. All of that. All of those loops which instead of damping down change like normal biological negative feedback loops, actually amplify it. Accelerate it. The curve is already much steeper then ever before. Only a year or two’s time now, and it will really begin to soar – and then…’ He gulped more wine. ‘Well, we have a plan in place, but it won’t be pretty. In fact it’ll make the holocaust look like a picnic. I’ve secured your place in the ark so to speak, yours and Clarrie’s and your mother’s, but most people…. well let’s just say that if they don’t drown and aren’t shot, they’ll starve. Ha! Not a pleasant prospect, not a pleasant prospect at all. Are you sure you don’t want any more of this stuff. Hmm, we seem to have finished the bottle. Let’s open another shall we? Why not? It’s not every day I have you down here.’
* * *
Snap. This is Clarrie, my sweet little sister, fast asleep in her pink pyjamas in the top bunk in Dad’s spare room. I took this picture when I finally went to bed. I suppose I wanted to hold onto something that wasn’t tarnished and spoiled. My dad was on his third bottle by then. He had been telling me what a fine man his father was, and how he hadn’t properly appreciated him until he was gone. The thought had brought tears to his grey mandarin eyes. Finally he had nodded off in his chair.
A couple of months later he went up onto the roof of an office block where he had been attending some corporate gathering. He laid his briefcase carefully down, climbed up onto the parapet, smoothed down his tie – and jumped.
* * *
Snap, snap. Snap, snap. This is us on the train back north. Here, look, are the green rolling hills of England as we all remember them. Here is Clarrie pulling a silly face…
Mother’s new boyfriend Pete came to meet us from the station in her car. He was ten years younger than her and wore torn dungarees with smears of paint all over them. Mum greeted us in her beautiful rustic kitchen. She kissed Clarrie, she kissed me and then, more lingeringly, more knowingly, she kissed Pete. I needed badly to be alone. I went up to my room. (Here it is look: my room, with my model planes, my Leeds United posters.) I went up to my room, found the noisiest, bloodiest computer game that I owned, and played it at maximum volume, killing, killing, killing.
Next day we were back in school. I sat in classes. I opened and closed books when I was asked. I tried to play with the other boys. But I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t even make myself feel present. My body and my speaking voice were like remote-controlled devices that I operated awkwardly from a solitary hiding place far away where I nursed the secret burden that was to drive my dad to suicide.
Snap. Snap. Snap. I took photos more and more. It helped to detach me from what was going on, taking them and then later downloading them and going through them again and again and again on my computer screen.
Snap. Here is a boy called Douglas teasing me. He’s calling me dozy. He’s saying I’m mental. I didn’t answer him. I took this picture instead. That angered him. He would have smashed my camera if a teacher hadn’t come by.
Snap. Snap. This is my father’s funeral. This is the coffin with his body inside it, worst for wear no doubt after its thirty-storey fall. Snap. Snap. This is Clarrie with her eyes red from crying, but still taking it all in, still making sure that she misses nothing and savours all that there is to see and hear. Snap. These are relatives of some sort, great-aunts and second-cousins-twice-removed and what-not, come over to try and talk to me.
‘Your father was such a wonderful man, Thomas, a wonderful man,’ says an elderly aunt-type lady in a hat with a black veil. ‘You should be very very proud of him.’
‘Isn’t Tom like him?’ exclaims a woman with sticking-out teeth.
‘What are you going to be when you grow up Tom?’ asks the lady in the hat.
Snap, I go, knowing that photograph will soon be all that’s left of them.
Snap. Look at the grey clouds piled above them. Look at the wind whipping up those trees.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
Rat Island © Chris Beckett, 2008. Not to be reproduced without author’s permission.