The sky is dark when my father gathers us all into the basement. I think it’s rather fitting to the moment, like the clouds will split at any moment to reveal a growing funnel reaching down to the ground. Except there’s no tornado. Oh, if only it were that simple.
‘We can stay here a long time,’ he assures us. How long? is the question on everyone’s lips, but no one dares say it. No one really wants to know the answer. Then he looks over at me, gives me a wink and answers my thoughts, ‘It’s all relative. For us it may only be a few months…but for the rest of the world it could be a hundred years.’ His eyes twinkle, even down here. I think it’s something about his mind, shining through his eyes, rather than a trick dependant upon light.
‘Why?’ my permanently wide-eyed and gullible eight-year-old sister Naomi asks. She sits down on a red gingham blanket our mother has set down for her and proceeds to brush the hair of an old doll she can’t seem to part with, despite how ratty and ugly it is now.
‘Because this is my accelerator,’ he whispers at her. Her mouth parts open a bit, taking in every word. ‘You might not feel it, but actually we’re spinning so fast right now, time is slowing down for us while everything happens outside.’ Whilst my father is eccentric, he’s not crazy; he’s just highly imaginative. Though I’ll admit right now he looks a bit mad, what with not shaving for a few weeks and the wild grey beard beginning. Absurdly, I think my mother’s undecided about what’s worse: knowing she’s going to die soon, or realising her final moments will be spent kissing hair.
He stands before us, six feet of lanky yet fizzing energy. Incredible how even now, at what may as well be the zero hour, he still manages to excite us. ‘I have an idea,’ he says, no doubt taking in the fear pulsing through his surrounding family. ‘Let’s all make ourselves comfortable, then gather round in a little circle and tell stories.’
‘Like we’re camping?’ asks Naomi.
‘Exactly!’ he nearly jumps. ‘So come on then, everyone huddle together, like that, yes.’ We follow his instructions (after all, what else are we going to do?) and sit in a group on the cold stone floor. It’s freezing, but I shouldn’t complain; our neighbours don’t have the luxury of owning a basement at all. Even now I can’t forget the sound of all their voices when they begged to be let down here with us. But there just wasn’t room, my dad said. Of course he would have loved to help them, but there was no way. And being here, I can understand; it’s tiny, dark and cramped. It certainly isn’t the sort of basement you’d see in a Hollywood film set in middle America. This was purpose-built in a hurry.
‘Now, who would like to go first?’ he opens the floor to us. My sister raises her hand, then launches into some convoluted tale about a princess finding her one true love when she least expects it. When Naomi finishes speaking, we all encouragingly smile our brightest smiles and clap loudly, and I think we’re all making an extra special effort to be nice because we know it won’t be long before this is all gone.
Next, my mother gives us a strange condensed version of ‘Gone with the Wind’, and I can’t help noting the appropriateness of the title (except, unlike in Tara, in our world tomorrow is not another day – in fact, for us, tomorrow may never come at all). When it’s my turn, I’m at a loss, so I pass and it’s time for my father to speak. Really, this is what we’ve been waiting for, hoping for all this time: for him to regale us with some fantastical myth to distract us from the reality resting on our shoulders.
‘In the beginning, there was only God,’ he starts, his voice low and mesmeric, his face bowing into the dim light of the torch we brought down with us. ‘He was blue, like the Indians believe, but had long black Rastafarian hair pulled into little braids and threaded through Native American-style beads that would reflect colour across the universe, just as soon as such things were created. He was dressed in a long white robe, gold cord stitched around his waist; and you could not comprehend his face, for it comprised every facet of life imaginable, every possibility of existence – it was everything.
‘The most important thing to realise, though, is that he was a violinist. The Great Violinist, in fact. This was at a time when there was no time, you realise. There was no space, either. He was absolutely everything. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? But it’s true. But somehow, in this incomprehensible eternity, he would “stand”, so to speak, encompassing infinity, and he would pluck a cosmic violin out of his thoughts and mould hands for himself so he could touch the strings. Make no mistake, though: this was no ordinary violin. It didn’t have a set number of strings. It seemed that, every time he touched one string, another would appear. And they would dance off the finger board, these little strings, and separate into the fabric of the universe. The more he played, the more they would vibrate, the music resonating throughout growing space. These vibrations would make patterns and somehow through it all the universe was born.’
‘Why can’t we hear the music?’ Naomi interrupts, as she always does. I don’t think she’s understood half the words our father has used to tell this story so far, yet still she has to challenge the realism.
‘It’s the wrong frequency for us,’ he doesn’t miss a beat. ‘You know how dogs can hear high-pitched noises we can’t?’ Naomi nods. ‘Well, it’s something like that.’ Too young to take her line of questioning any further, my sister relents so he can continue his tale:
‘One day, God decided to create Man. The first humans had such strange names, there’s no way for us to pronounce them because language was still a mental concept back then – you only had to think something, feel it, and the idea would be communicated. So for now we’ll have to make do with calling them Alan and Eva. He placed then on a tiny blue world in a far corner of the universe, and they populated the place until it was a bustling planet of 7 billion!
‘Finally, there came a time when Man grew too proud for its own good. People became so advanced and knowledgeable, they believed they’d solved the mysteries of the cosmos and decided they were the only intelligent life in the universe. So God decided to punish them.
‘He pulled out his violin once again and strummed its delicate infinite strings until it caused an explosion in a laboratory at the centre of a place called Europe.’
‘Like where we live?’ Naomi asks, completely taken in.
‘Yes, that’s right. And the explosion…well, it was more like an implosion. The matter smashed down until it was so small but so heavy, it knocked gravity and started a black hole!’ He pauses for dramatic effect, and I catch sight of my mother; even she is silent with anticipation (who can blame her, knowing what’s happening above us?). ‘Well, two new humans (who incidentally were also named Alan and Eva) didn’t know what to do, because they’d heard this would kill them and they could already feel themselves being sucked down into the collapsing singularity.
‘Now, what they didn’t know was that God had other plans for them. He can do anything he wants, so he protected them from being torn apart by the black hole, and miraculously they made it to the very smallest point of the hole in one piece – and were flung out the other side. Spacetime warped, pulled backward, then snapped back, hurling them into some other region of space.
‘They found themselves floating through a kind of pliable jelly. They could move freely, yet they could see the translucent substance they were moving through. It was as if they were in outer space, except someone had made all the material of space visible for them. And they could breathe! What a surprise that was! Was this some feature of an alternate dimension, they wondered? No. Really, it was all part of God’s plan for them.
‘They swam through it like through water, their arms parting in butterflies and frogs, until they caught sight of land: a small red and purple world they somehow navigated toward, diving through its atmosphere like so much foam and falling through the clouds until they crashed down in a patch of fire. How they survived all this, don’t ask me. Like I say, miracles were at work here.
‘When they looked up, they found there were surrounded by creatures made of perhaps a type of lava, oozing and slipping, but very definitely alive. And when they spoke, Alan and Eva were amazed they could understand the language.
‘“Who are you?” was the first thing they said, of course. Wouldn’t you?
‘“I’m Alan, and this is Eva,” came the introductions.
‘“Well…but…what are you?” the lava creatures prodded further, for this was really the crux of the thing, wasn’t it?
‘“We’re humans. We came from Earth.” Well, wouldn’t you know it: these lava people had never heard of Earth. But they had heard something about humans. They just never quite believed such stories were real. That was the sort of thing myths were made of. Excited, they swarmed the pair to learn the story of how they’d got to this new world.
‘Naturally, someone eventually had to take charge of the situation, so one lava creature came forward for the job. Again, his name was in such a strange language, we’ll have to call him something else so you can understand it.
‘“Yours certainly is a strange story. And now we will tell you what we know. My name is Lucifer,” he greeted them, and really his name was appropriate, for he certainly did reflect a great degree of light with that fiery body of his. Alan and Eva were quite taken aback by it, though.
‘“Is this Hell, then? Have we died?” they wondered. It was definitely a viable theory that would go a long way to explaining all the strange things they’d been experiencing! But it wasn’t so; they were very much alive.
‘“Hell…,” Lucifer mused. ‘I’ve heard something about that, in stories passed around the galaxies. They say it’s a human concept – a place where the sinners go to burn for all eternity. No, this is not Hell. For someone like me, you see…well, your Earth would probably be Hell, wouldn’t it? Because…well, I hate water. Oh, how it quells me! Give me fire any day! For us here, eternal flames would be paradise.”
‘There wasn’t much to argue with this sound logic, which honestly shocked Alan and Eva.
‘“There are humans all across space,’ Lucifer continued, “and they all have the same ideas…which is weird, if you think about it, but I can’t contradict the facts of nature. But they’re such human ideas. They don’t apply to other creatures. You must all believe you’re the only life in the universe.”
‘“Well…yes,” Alan admitted, quite embarrassed. “We had no evidence to the contrary.”
‘“Evidence, evidence…always seeking evidence…,” Lucifer mused. “Don’t you ever take things on faith? Have you no imagination? No belief in magic? You keep limiting your God to locations – Heaven, Hell, Purgatory. None of these places exists. Look all around you. Where are you now? Do you even know? This world was sitting right underneath your own all your life, but you couldn’t see it until a hole ripped through and dragged you onto the other side. But really, it’s all one and the same. When you flew through space, you saw the matter you were surrounded by. Well, that’s always been around you on Earth, too. You just never looked properly. So if you’re looking for answers, all I can say is: you don’t need to search for them; they’re all right there, like jelly, hugging your flesh.”
‘Alan and Eva were stunned. There were so many revelations to take in, suddenly! Then, Eva noticed perhaps the strangest thing of all, in this new dimension: the music. The most beautiful symphony of violins was humming through her ears. Lucifer looked unfazed by it, but Alan and Eva couldn’t help looking up into the stars and seeing them bounce and dart across the sky.
‘“They’re…dancing,” Eva breathed in wonderment. Alan came closer to her and hugged her tightly, his eyes never leaving the purple-tinted heavens. “Oh, Alan, it’s so beautiful. But where is it coming from?”
‘Just then, the most formidable creature – blue with wild plaited hair, beads shaking and glittering, and a giant violin in hand – dropped down from the sky before them. Without bothering to speak, he strummed the violin with his unworldly dextrous fingers, and the human couple could do nothing but stare, dumbstruck. This was most certainly not normal violin music, let me assure you!
‘When he paused to speak, the music continued, reverberating throughout the cosmos via the sound having to take its time travelling and bringing its song to farther and farther reaches of space. “It sounds a bit underwhelming, but there’s no other way to say it: I’m God,” he said. And after such music, they didn’t dare doubt him. Who else could have played such an orchestra on just one instrument?
‘“Did you bring us here?” Alan found the words to ask. “Why?”
‘“To show you how much more there was than you would ever know. You humans are always so convinced you’re the only ones. It’s like one of you took a bite from the Tree of Ignorance and it all just spiralled from there. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t really care too deeply. I mean, you’ll all find out in the end, won’t you? But something about you, about the direction your world was taking…I thought it was about time I stepped in and showed you how small you are – how much more there is out there – how insignificant your problems are, and that there are bigger things to believe in, to see, to feel. You’re so blinded by distractions, you lose sight of the beauty teeming all around you…you can’t hear the music anymore.”’
My father suddenly breaks off, here. Through the dim, I can’t be certain but I think he might be crying. (Oh God, this is bad, this is bad, he never cries, he’s the strong one! How can this be happening?)
‘Edmund?’ my mother is the first to speak. ‘Edmund, was that the end? Are you…?’ She can’t finish her sentence. (Okay? Alright? How could anyone be alright, now?)
‘Daddy, what’s wrong?’ Naomi questions, and the sound of her frightened little voice seems to snap him back.
‘Nothing!’ he says – then laughs awkwardly, laughs too much, clearly faking it. ‘I’m absolutely fine, darling, fine. Now…come here, won’t you, and let me give you a hug.’ Obediently, she clambers into his lap and he wraps his arms around her so tightly, you’d think it was the last time he’ll ever….
‘Daddy, what’s going to happen?’ she starts speaking the words none of us has had the courage to speak so far. ‘When can we come out of here?’
‘When the bad things have stopped,’ he answers vaguely.
‘And then what? What about the time travel?’
My mother raises an eyebrow at this, but my father explains it away smoothly. ‘Well, like I’ve said before, we can’t go backwards in time, but we can go forward. This accelerator we’re in is moving so quickly, time is actually stopping for us. So in a few months, we’ll come out of here and so much time will have passed above ground that all the bad things will be gone and we’ll be in a new world.’
‘Like Alan and Eva?’ Naomi asks.
My father smiles. ‘Yes, quite a lot like them.’
‘What will the new world be like?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. But think of it as being a bit like Christmas, when you see all the packages under the tree but you don’t know what’s inside them. And if you peek at them too early, it ruins the surprise on the day. It ruins the fun.’ He grins at her encouragingly, but with just enough desperation flashing through his eyes for my mother and me to catch it.
The fun. Right. That’s exactly what I’d call it. The truth is, Naomi’s the only one who doesn’t know what’s inside those ‘packages’. For the rest of us….
My father is rocking my sister now, and I’m stabbed with a kind of pain at the thought that I’ve been accelerating so quickly through life, I’m already much too big to sit in his lap and be rocked like that – how much time have I let slip by without my even considering it might all come to an end at any moment? (At a moment in the near, near future?) Looking at him, at my sister, at my mother…I try to imprint them in my mind, as though somehow that might be enough to give them a form of immortality. And who knows? Maybe we’re all mistaken. Perhaps this isn’t the end, and we too will find ourselves flung out into some other world, to see the beauty that’s been all around us without us even realising.
I move closer to my mother and lean my head on her shoulder. As though I weren’t already 19, as though just three days ago I hadn’t been screaming about my right to stay out until 2am if I so chose, my mother puts her around me, lets her fingers find my hair and combs through the blond strands gently, oh so gently.
And then I hear it: the music. My mother, humming a tune I haven’t heard since I was a little girl. And before long, my father has joined in – and Naomi – and finally me. We sit in the shadows, the limited air struggling through us, and we sing.