Jasmine relaxes

WP_20190514_12_33_09_ProWell, that wasn’t so bad. A week after my little op I am grateful that the recovery has been pretty much trouble-free.  The four tiny keyhole incisions have been painless, but for a couple of days I felt as if my insides had been rummaged around in, which I suppose they had been. Apparently I was one of the 10% who felt bloated after the op and had tremendous wind (both ends) but that passed after three days. Since then I’ve felt fine, so we’ll say no more about it other than thanks to the operating team who did a grand job, the nurses who looked after me for the 4 hours I was in recovery and most importantly to Lou who has pampered me, and had lots of fun examining my scars ever since.

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What a strange week of politics. First we have apparently the whole of the parliamentary Conservative party competing with itself to follow May.  How many candidates are there? How can it be that they’re all awful, and not in the original meaning of the term? (easy, they’re Tories).  Then we have the aftermath of the EU parliament elections. I cannot understand why the media (i.e. the BBC) has made so much fuss about the Brexit Party’s showing. They were not a new party but just a different name for Faragists. They hoovered up nearly all the UKIP votes from five years ago and didn’t really move on from there much when you consider that the Cons vote collapsed. The real story was the rise in both the Lib Dems and the Greens representing Remain voters.  The latter in particular, who more than doubled their representation, barely got a mention. For the rest of the week we have observed the agony of the Labour Party (or rather Corbyn’s bit of it) in trying to justify their contorted and futile position on Brexit.

I am amused (not the right word but it fits) that Tory leadership contenders and Labour party spokespeople talk of uniting the country. After the madness of the last three years that is impossible. It has probably always been true that a third of the population, particularly those of “mature” years have had the potential to be brexiteers, with all that entails. It was the idiocy of Cameron that has allowed their feelings to spill out into the open. Nothing will push those opinions back under the stone where they came from. It is up to the real majority of people who recognise the importance of Europe, of diversity, of the dangers of looking backwards, to push for the 2016 referendum result to be overturned, either by reverting to the result of the 1975 referendum (pro Europe) or to have another.

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I got back to some writing this week. I’ve moved on with the novel, or at least now have a better idea where I’m going with it, and I wrote a short piece for my writing group.  The theme this week was to write about holidays in the first person. Some of the others wrote hilarious pieces about travelling abroad and about childhood memories.  Mine is a bit more reflective and specific in time and place, and it’s short.

To The Lake

I sat on a grass-topped tuffet of peat and looked out across the lake, melding with the tranquillity and seclusion. It was late March, a sunny, calm day, not cold, an ideal day for a walk in the hills. We had left the dramatic Pistyll Rhaedr, the tallest waterfall in Wales, not quite two hours earlier and set off along the path up the valley of Nant y Llyn, the stream of the lake. Since leaving the tourist site we had walked about three miles and not seen another person.
The water’s surface was hardly disturbed at all. The lake was almost circular, a perfect example of a glacial cwm about two hundred metres in diameter. Behind rose the almost vertical crescent of Moel Sych, the top of the ridge another two hundred and fifty metres above us.
The edge of the lake was shallow, the water perfectly clear. Out in the middle, the surface was dark, the depth unknown. The glacier would have scooped out the contours of the lake and left loose rock at its rim to dam the waters. The water level was in fact low; there had been little rain in recent weeks and the streams were not in spate as we had expected for early spring.
I sat and pondered, listening to the silence. There was enough warmth in the Sun for sitting to be comfortable. There were no signs of civilisation, not even a grazing sheep. We could have been the last couple, or the first. As well as peace there was mystery. The name of the lake is Llyn Lluncaws. My poor Welsh translated that as Lake of Mooncheese. Mooncheese? What did that mean.  Did it refer to the shape of the lake, almost circular like the full Moon or a whole cheese? Or was there something else.
Legend has it that the Moon is made of cheese. In a fantasy universe the world can be anything you would like it to be. Perhaps Llyn Lluncaws was a place of fantasy. Stones beneath the surface at the edge of the lake had strange markings on them; squiggles like runes. Did they hold the secrets of the lake? I hoped for fire-breathing dragons to swoop over the ridge above my head, although I wished they would not breathe their flames on me. Maybe a magical princess might arise from the waters and walk out of the lake as occurred at the similar Llyn y Fan Fach in Carmarthenshire.
Nothing happened. The silence was unbroken by the beating wings of dragons and the surface of the lake remained calm. We ate our light lunch and eventually, reluctantly, set off back down the valley. As we crossed the lip, Llyn Lluncaws dropped from view. Perhaps the princess would step from the water once we had gone.

Author’s note: After this experience I discovered that “llun” does not mean Moon (that’s lleuad)  but in fact means picture or form, but I have found no other meaning for “caws”. So is it “Lake of the form of a cheese”? Not as interesting as mooncheese, but I don’t know.what else LLyn Lluncaws can mean.

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Jasmine enjoys a break

The news hasn’t improved. Far too many MPs in Parliament are proving to be selfish, stupid, arrogant and totally misguided. The media, particularly by the BBC (since that’s what we watch), seem to go out of their way to find members of the public with totally blinkered views of the world.  Perhaps half the (voting) population still do think that leaving the EU is the best thing to happen since we won WW2 but that doesn’t make them right.

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Before I curl up in a ball to shut out this bizarre world we live in, let’s talk about something completely different.  Since the start of the year my bedtime reading has been a large tome of a biography of scientist John Tyndall  (The Ascent of John Tyndall by Roland Jackson). It is perhaps not the most well-written and exciting biography but it does give a detailed picture of his life and the state of science in the UK and Europe in middle decades of the nineteenth century.

Ascent of JTTyndall is little known now, partly due to his wife outliving him by 47 years.  She was intent on writing his biography but never managed to complete it. By the time she died in 1940 he had been forgotten. He wasn’t a genius to rank with Michael Faraday or Charles Darwin and made no paradigm changing discoveries. Neither was he a mathematical physicist like Clerk Maxwell or William Thompson (Lord Kelvin).  He was in fact a superb experimental scientist who amassed accurate data on the topics that interested him.  He was also a superb lecturer. During his more than thirty years at the Royal Institution in London (he was Faraday’s successor) he was the go-to attraction for thousands of men, women and children. Another reason perhaps for his slide from fame was that he flipped from one topic of interest to another, covering most branches of science.  He started with an interest in magnetism, moved on to the interaction of heat (infra-red radiation) with gases and went on to champion the germ-theory of disease, collecting evidence that supported Pasteur’s and Koch’s work. Throughout his life he was also a keen mountain climber, spending a month or two in the Swiss Alps every summer and doing important work on the study of glaciers.

Much of Tyndall’s work is relevant today, particularly his work on the absorption of heat by gases and vapours. He did meticulous measurements to show that the atmosphere, particularly the water vapour and carbon dioxide, absorbs the infra-red radiation radiated out by the earth.  He recognised that this had a warming effect (the Greenhouse Effect we call it now) that moderated the climate. He was also aware of the driving force this has on weather. Tyndall in fact provided the facts that underpin our present understanding of climate change.

Tyndall also explained why the sky is blue. That is that the short wavelength (blue) light from the Sun is scattered by the atmosphere more than longer wavelengths (red). He thought it was mainly due to dust (and bacteria) and water droplets in the upper atmosphere (it is actually the molecules of air itself).

So Tyndall has a lot of things to say to present-day scientists and non-scientists. His rise in society from a fairly ordinary, protestant Irish family to a well off star if London society is also interesting. Of course, the final piece of fascinating information about him is perhaps his death (look it up!).

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I am still taking a rest from writing Jasmine stories but my fingers are busy on the keyboard nevertheless. This week’s topic for my writers’ club was “candles”. Being immersed in C19th science my thoughts turned to Faraday’s Christmas Lecture series “The Chemical History of a Candle”.  The story that resulted is below. I began with the character being male, but once I had the ending decided that female would be more appropriate.  What do you think?

Keeping the flame

“Stop it, Ellen. If you don’t behave, I will suggest to your father that you should not attend the Royal Institution this afternoon.”
Nanny’s words had an immediate effect on me. I did not want to miss the journey into London so I decided to do as she requested. I finished eating the lunch that had been placed before me and soon it was time to don clothes suitable for venturing into society.
Shortly before two p.m. I joined Father in the hallway of our home. Despite it being but the fourth day of Christmas there was no decoration. We had not celebrated the festival this year. Nanny fussed over me while Father urged us to hurry into the carriage. It was a typical December day, cold, damp, foggy and the air stank of the smoke from the coal that we and our neighbours burned in our house fires. Nanny wrapped a blanket around me for the journey. As we set off along the muddy street, I addressed Father.
“Papa, Mama said that Mr Faraday would lecture on ‘The Chemical History of the Candle’.”
He held up a slip of paper and peered at it. “That is indeed the title on the ticket that your Mother purchased before. . .” His voice faded away and he looked out of the window.
“How can he talk for a whole hour about candles?” I said
“That we shall find out soon, Ellen,” Nanny said, “Don’t upset your father.”
I was not to be diverted. “But we have gaslight in our house. Why doesn’t he talk about the Chemical History of Gaslight?”
Father sighed. “I am sure Mr Faraday has a very good reasons for the title of this year’s Christmas Lectures. He has been delivering them for over twenty years. I am certain that he knows what will instruct and entertain his audience.”
“Will he make explosions, Papa?” I asked, eagerly.
“Let us wait and see.”
It was only some two miles to Piccadilly but before we reached our destination, we joined a queue of carriages and cabs. Eventually we turned into Albemarle Street. All the traffic travelled at a very slow pace in the same direction. Father tapped his cane against the roof of the carriage. It stopped and we stepped down. Nanny took my hand as we walked the last few yards to the grand entrance of the Royal Institution. There was a crush, as many people were of the same intention.
We took our seats in the steeply banked auditorium. Below us there was a large horse-shoe-shaped table on which stood many pieces of apparatus and quite a few candles. Just one was lit. At last the crowd hushed and Mr Faraday entered through a door behind the table. Father had told me that he was the most famous man of science in the country, but he was quite a small, retiring man with white hair.
He began to speak and his voice filled the hall. He asked us all to look carefully at the lit candle and note that though the candlewax was the fuel that fed the flame, it was solid and upright.
For the next hour I was mesmerised by Mr Faraday’s talk. He explained the principles by which a candle gives out light so clearly and entertainingly and his demonstrations illustrated the points that he made so appropriately that I felt that, despite being of few years, I understood all that he had said. I was filled with enthusiasm for science and talked of nothing else on the dark journey home. As we stepped down from our carriage I spoke to Father.
“May I try out Mr. Faraday’s experiments, Papa?”
“I am sure that is possible, my dear. Nanny will supervise you but take care with the candle flame.”
“Yes, Papa.”
I noticed that there was a tear in his eye, as I left him. I took Nanny’s hand and dragged her to the school room. She brought a candle from her room, and holding a taper to the gaslight, transferred the flame to the wick. I observed it closely as instructed by Mr Faraday and saw the little pool of liquid wax that formed just below the flame.
“I wish Mama was here,” I said.
“I am sure she is, in spirit,” Nanny replied.
“She would help me do Mr Faraday’s experiments, wouldn’t she?”
“Yes, Ellen,” Nanny’s voice wavered, “She would be pleased to see you taking up science. She was an admirer of Mr Faraday for many years and often expressed the wish that she could be a scientist too.”
“Why couldn’t she be a scientist?” I asked.
Nanny sniffed. “It is said, by men, that only men have the intellectual capacity to pursue scientific knowledge.”
“Then I will become one for Mama.”
The candle flame flickered as if in response to my resolution.

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Jasmine is resting

I think I have fallen into an alternative universe where nothing makes sense anymore. Brexit, Parliament, May – need I say more.

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I was given a stark example this week of how the law fails transgender people, those without a Gender Recognition Certificate, that is.  A woman was murdered, a suspect who was arrested was known to her.  That situation is familiar and far more common than it should be. Not something for newspapers to make a fuss about. Except, that when the suspect was taken to court and charged with the murder, the name of the victim read out was male. Despite having lived as a woman for many years the victim p1000037had been outed by the court as transgender.  I don’t know what she would have thought about that if she’d been alive but I think she might have been hurt to have her past existence revealed. Why was it released to the public? Because her female status was not respected by the legal system of the UK.  Only if you possess a Gender Recognition Certificate as a transman or transwoman, are you legally the gender you identify with and have that gender on your birth certificate and death certificate.  I do not know why the murdered woman did not possess a GRC, but there are plenty of reasons she could have given.  In fact only about 5,000 of the 500,000 transgendered people in the UK have a GRC (those figures are very, very approximate). Those figures suggest that obtaining a GRC is seen as a problem by many people living in the gender they identify with. Only those with a GRC have a secure legal status and the respect of the law.  That is why a revision of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act is necessary. I’m not sure whether self-identification as male or female is feasible or likely but I would like to see the option of a non-defined gender available.

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Another writers’ group short story this week.  The given topic was “Stars”.  I was probably expected to produce an SF story and I would have enjoyed that prospect, but I decided to do something a little different. Here is “Star” or possibly “Star-child”. Not sure if it works as a short story.  These days my short stories of around 1000 words read a bit like an excerpt or taster of a longer tale. However, I have enough novels in the machine already.

Star

Her feet were sore and her legs ached, but Papa urged her on.
“Not much further, child. The light is going. Look for some dry twigs for our fire.”
She tugged the fur of the ice bear around herself and looked up. Papa was right. The canopy was dark and there were no longer shafts of sunlight like spears of fire. She followed in Papa’s footsteps surveying the ground for kindling.
It wasn’t long before she noticed a change in the light. Although the day was ending her surroundings were lighter. The light came from between the tall tree trunks not from above. Papa gave a cry and hurried forward. She ran after him grasping her bundle of wood.
It was as if the trees would only grow if they were surrounded by their companions. Suddenly they were out in the open with the forest behind them. She scudded to a halt feeling grass on her legs reaching up to her waist. She turned slowly, seeing the line of conifers behind and ahead the grass plain studded with flowers of every colour. In the distance there was a line where the land stopped. Above it, hung the golden ball of the Sun. She looked up seeing the full dome of the sky for the first time in her life, blue-black above the forest, radiant blue above and red around the Sun.
She felt dizzy. “Papa!”
He ran to her, dropping his spear and scooping her into his arms. “I’m sorry, child. I forgot you have not seen all the sky before. It is dazzling isn’t it?”
“I didn’t know the sky was so big,” she said. “You told me that the gods had taken Mama above the sky. Is she way up there?” She pointed upwards.
“Yes, child, that is what I said.” There was a shake to his voice and a tear was in his eye.
“Thank you, Papa. You can put me down now.” She wriggled.
Chuckling, he set her on her feet. He picked up his flint tipped spear and hitched the boar skin over his shoulder.
“I think I see a stream a bit further on. We’ll camp near there. Come on, child, just a few more steps.”
Soon they came to a lazy, meandering brook with a clump of bushes nearby where the grass didn’t grow as tall. Papa removed the skin from his shoulder, took out the fire pot and carefully lit some tinder. Soon he had a fire started.
“Tend the fire child. I will try and find our supper. Do not wander. This land is unfamiliar to you and me.” He strode off with his spear at his shoulder.
She fed twigs to the fire which burned without smoke. Satisfied that it was alight she turned her attention to the flowers that grew amongst the grasses. She picked those that took her fancy and braided their stems together into a ring which she placed on her head of golden hair. Before the Sun had sunk completely below the horizon, Papa returned dangling a dead rabbit from his fist. He muttered approving noises at the fire and her crown, then sat beside her. She watched as he skinned the creature with his knife with the bronze blade and bone handle. He gave her strips of flesh which she fixed to a stick and held in the flames.
It was quite dark by the time they finished eating. She looked up and gasped. The whole dome of the heavens was studded with points of light.
“The stars, Papa,” she cried, “There are so many.”
Papa looked up too. “Wonderful aren’t they.”
“What are stars, Papa?”
He took a breath. “They are holes in the dome of the heavens through which the gods look down on us.”
She let out a sigh. “Does Mama look down on us too?”
“I’m sure she does. Now child, you must settle to sleep. We have more travelling to do tomorrow.”
She curled up alongside him in the grass, pulling the white fur around her.

She awoke with a start. A noise, a cry, had disturbed her. It was still dark but along with the starlight there was a gibbous Moon low in the sky. Papa was on his feet, two hands gripping his spear. It was pointing at two dark-haired figures clothed in dark furs. They edged towards him, stone axes held aloft. She crouched in the grass, watching.
Something caught her eye, high up. A bright streak shot across the sky. Overhead it exploded with a light bigger and brighter than the Sun. A few heart beats later there came a noise like a lion’s roar and wind blew flattening the grass.
She scrambled to her feet with red spots before her eyes and stepped towards Papa. She pointed to the stars.
“What’s happening, Papa?”
The two dark skinned men were immobile. They took one look at her and fell to their knees. They babbled and bowed their heads towards her.
“What are they saying?” she said. Papa came to her side and rested a hand on her shoulder. His other hand still held the spear.
“I don’t know, child. They speak differently to us but some words I recognise. I heard ‘star’ and ‘child’ and ‘light’. I think they believe you are fallen from the stars. They’re worshipping you.”

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Jasmine reluctant

Well, that was a surprising week wasn’t. Fancy Federa losing at Wimbledon from matchpoint! Then there was the government in turmoil over Brexit. Actually that is normal, but the resignations of Johnson and Davies were a bit unexpected. Of course they couldn’t do the honourable thing and resign when asked to back the PM. No, first they gave her their support, then they resigned. But that behaviour is not really a surprise since they have both lied and squirmed since before the referendum. But where does it leave May and the Brexit negotiations? I’ve no idea.

Then there’s Trump’s visit to the UK after causing mayhem at NATO. Nothing surprising there either (I’m writing this  on Thursday evening – perhaps he’s declared himself king of Engerland by the time you read this). I’d have thought that, by now, skilled politicians would have worked out how to neutralise his disruptive behaviour. Apparently they haven’t, which is worrying. The thing is – he’s dangerous. Satire is a useful weapon but just considering him a joke is not. I don’t think he’s particularly bright or the “ideas man” but he knows how to stir things up and sow discord. Other leaders have not found a way to counteract his rudeness, his willingness to tell outright lies and his immediate recall to Twitter to spread his chaos. Our “leaders” whatever their political colour have to find a way to cope without the spin-doctors and the protocol experts.

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WP_20180414_09_47_33_ProToday I am (I hope) at BLISS in Southport, joining a couple of dozen other authors at the Prince of Wales Hotel displaying and signing our books. I hope there will be people attending who are not only keen readers but who also have deep pockets. I have 10 titles for sale – viz. the 3 Jasmine Frame novels – Painted Ladies, Bodies By Design and The Brides’ Club Murder – the Evil Above the Stars trilogy and Cold Fire, my two Angela Meadows erotic novels and the Elsewhen SF anthology. That’s plenty to keep your bedside table creaking on its legs.

However, for free you can read the next episode of the Jasmine Frame sequel/prequel, Negative, here.

Negative: Part 5

Jasmine felt a wave of nausea pass through her, as if she’d drunk too much alcohol. It wasn’t alcohol, she hadn’t had a drink since she’d arrived here, but she knew the cause of her discomfort – a body, a death, a victim. Perhaps Tegan’s death was an accident, but the tone of the police officer’s questioning suggested a mystery. It wasn’t a simple road accident then.
Ceri seemed as nonplussed as Jasmine. ‘How?’ she asked.
‘I’m afraid that I can’t tell you that,’ the PC replied. Perhaps he didn’t know the whole story, Jasmine thought, definitely not all the details. The SIO, the senior investigating officer, would be keeping important facts secret if there was any crime contributing to the woman’s death.
‘The last time you saw Tegan Jones was Tuesday evening?’ The officer went on.
‘Yes,’ Ceri replied in a quiet voice.
The PC turned to the proprietor. ‘Was she working yesterday?’
The little man flustered. ‘I think so. I wasn’t here. I wasn’t told of a problem. Myfanwy. . .’
‘Myfanwy?’ The officer interjected.
‘Our stand-in waitress,’ the owner continued, ‘she didn’t report anything being wrong yesterday.’
Jasmine coughed. The other three people turned to face her. ‘Tegan Jones was waiting at dinner last evening,’ she said.
The officer turned a page in his notebook. ‘Who are you?’
‘Jasmine Frame. I’m a guest. I had dinner here last evening. Miz Jones was here while I was.’
‘What time was that?’ The PC asked while scribbling notes.
Jasmine had to think. She hadn’t noted the exact timings of her movements the previous evening. What had she watched on TV when she returned to her room?
‘It was quite early, I think, when I finished dinner – seven thirty-ish,’ she said.
‘Thank you, madam,’ the PC said. ‘You didn’t note what kind of mood she was in did you?’
Jasmine shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, she didn’t serve me and I didn’t have any conversation with her. Miz Jones didn’t seem to converse much; not with guests. I couldn’t say what her emotional state was or whether it was different to normal.’
‘Thank you, I think that’s all for now.’ The officer completed his note, turned and left the dining room with the proprietor on his heels. Ceri approached Jasmine. Her face was drained of colour.
‘I can’t believe she’s dead,’ Ceri said, her voice shaking.  Jasmine got up from her seat and wrapped her arms around the girl. ‘I’ve wished her dead any number of times for being so nasty to me, but. . .’
‘It’s okay. You can’t blame yourself for thinking those things. She was nasty.’ Jasmine was trying to be comforting. ‘Her death means she’s not going to bother you again.’
Ceri sniffed. ‘But how? What happened to her? Why did the police come asking questions?’
Jasmine was thinking the same things. She didn’t want to think about another death but she couldn’t help it. Questions about the investigation just kept popping into her head. She released Ceri from her hug.
‘There is obviously some doubt about when and perhaps how Tegan died. The police can’t have witnesses from the time of death; not yet anyway. That’s why they’re trying to trace her last movements.’
‘I want to know what happened,’ Ceri said firmly.
‘The police won’t be letting much out yet. Not until they have the story straight. But there are other ways of finding out some things.’
‘How?’
And so it begins, Jasmine thought. No I am not investigating this woman’s death, but she could see that Ceri was eager to know more.
‘This is a small town,’ Jasmine said, ‘How do you normally find out what’s going on.’
Ceri didn’t have to think for long. ‘Facebook and my mother.’
‘There you are then. I expect you’ll know more than that police officer soon.’
The girl looked around her. ‘I’d better clear up here. Then I’ll ask around.’
‘You do that,’ Jasmine said starting for the door.
‘Shall we meet for coffee?’ Ceri called.
Jasmine paused and turned. ‘Yes, if you like. Same place?’
Ceri nodded and began stacking plates.

Ceri didn’t appear at the time of their previous meetings but Jasmine didn’t wait on the pier because a wind carrying flurries of rain was blowing in from the sea. She went into the café, queued for a coffee then sat in their corner seat.
Her cup was empty when Ceri strode in. She came straight to Jasmine.
‘I’m sorry. I was stuck on my phone. I was on Facebook and texting my mates, then my mother rang to tell me the news.’
‘The news?’
‘About Tegan. She held me up.’
‘That’s okay. Sit down, I’ll get the coffees.’
Jasmine returned to the table with Ceri’s cappuccino and another black coffee for herself. She sat down and smiled at the young woman.
‘Well tell me. What’s the town got to say?’
‘It’s all over Facebook,’ Ceri said, not really surprised. ‘It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened here in months. Usually it’s what tourists get up to but the season hasn’t really got going yet.’
‘So what is being said about Tegan?’
Ceri took a deep breath. ‘Well some of the posts name her and some don’t.’
‘That’s to be expected. For some people it’s just an exciting event and they don’t know or care who the victim was. What are they saying? Is there a location?’
‘A location?’
‘Where her body was discovered.’
‘Oh yes, On the Undercliff.’
‘Where’s that?’ Jasmine had an idea but wasn’t certain.
‘The road round the headland.’
‘Oh yes. I walked it the other day. It’s a few miles long, do you know where?’
Ceri was looking at her phone, her thumb flicking over the screen.
‘Yes, here we are. It’s about a mile out of town on the east side.’
Jasmine frowned as she recalled her walk. ‘I know. The cliff’s pretty sheer there. The road is tucked right against the rock.’
‘That’s the place.’
‘Any suggestions of how she died?’
Ceri’s face creased. ‘There are all sorts of ideas. They can’t all be right.’
Jasmine grinned. It was as she expected. ‘It’ll all be supposition,’ she said. ‘The police won’t have released details, but gossip gets out. Perhaps there’s some truth there somewhere. What do they say?’
‘Oh, that she was knocked down while out walking, or jogging. That’s nonsense, I don’t think Tegan ever jogged anywhere and she wouldn’t have gone for a walk after work last night or before the breakfast shift.’
‘Okay, so we can reject a typical hit and run. If she’d been hit by a driver who stopped, the police wouldn’t be asking questions about where she was last night. What else?’
‘She fell from the cliff.’
‘From what you said about her not going for a run or walk, that sounds pretty unlikely too.’
‘That’s what I thought.’
Jasmine pondered. ‘Anyway, it seems we know that Tegan’s body was found on the road a mile out of town, under a cliff, and not in a car.’
‘That’s right, Jasmine.’ Ceri nodded.
‘So how did she get there? Is that where she was killed or was her body dumped there?’
‘Dumped!’
‘It’s how bodies are got rid of.’
‘Do you mean? No, you can’t. . .’
‘Tegan was murdered. Yes I do.’ Jasmine felt a mixture of excitement and resignation. Too many deaths had impacted her life in recent years. If it wasn’t actually normal to be thinking of causes of death and motives for murder it was certainly a familiar state of mind for Jasmine. ‘What did your mother have to say?’
‘Uh, Mother? Oh she said, “good riddance”. She knows what Tegan’s been like to me.’
‘Did she think Tegan’s death was suspicious?’
Ceri’s eyes opened wide. ‘I thought she was joking. She said “I expect her partner’s got fed up with her and bumped her off”.’
‘Your mother said partner, not husband? Tegan’s not married?’
‘No, didn’t I tell you? Tegan’s partner’s a woman. Tegan’s a lesbian. I mean, she was.’

 

 

Jasmine and the end of the world

IMGP6557 (2)Earlier this week I spent an enjoyable day at How The Light Gets In, the “other” Hay festival. I attended some interesting talks and discussions but the last got me hopping mad. The topic “Out of the Apocalypse” was billed as a discussion  about:

“From climate change and superbugs to nuclear strikes, visions of man-made apocalypse fill the headlines. Is this because we don’t really believe them and as a result are simply entertained? Should we see impending apocalypse as very real and act with more urgency? Or is apocalypse a perennial human narrative that sells books, magazines and news and is mostly fantasy?”

Unfortunately the contributors circled around the subject although none appeared to be climate-change-deniers. First there was discussion of the meaning of the term “apocalypse”.  Apparently it is derived from the Greek word for Revelation as used in the last book of the Bible and so refers to religious hopes for the end of the world where God triumphs, believers get their reward and the rest get punished or annihilated. It perhaps doesn’t quite mean what the title was intended to mean.  This meant that apart from a bit of discussion about nuclear holocaust we never dug into the impending disasters facing us. The chair even asked at one point why we “don’t see any evidence of the coming apocalypse.”  I felt like shouting out “how many more pictures of retreating glaciers, disappearing Arctic ice, burning rainforest, turtles with stomachs full of plastic bags, heaps of rubbish, city smogs, etc., etc., do you need?”. The participants seemed to approach the Apocalypse, or whatever it is, in an almost religious manner i.e. that it was all about an abrupt death. Yes, it is about people (and wildlife) dying, but that’s not the worst part of it.

The coming Armageddon, (another term of dubious applicability) will not be a one-off event. It will be a slow (in human if not geological terms) process, as the environment dies, food becomes short, order breaks down and people gradually die of starvation, disease, “accidents” and violence. The causes are numerous.  Here are just a few:  climate change caused by excessive use of fossil fuels and deforestation leading to drought, violent storms (causing landslides), mass extinctions et al; death of marine life by pollution (not just plastics) and acidification; soil degradation (we’re losing a massive amount every year); air pollution; pollution of fresh water sources; invasive pests and diseases (e.g. flu, ebola); etc.

I don’t see governments making any real attempts to solve these problems.  I hope I am being pessimistic but what I see does not give me cause for optimism. In the future we will see rising prices for food, increasing unrest in areas where food and water are in short supply, leading to break down of law and order, wars, refugees and migrants. In richer countries, those with power (corporations, the wealthy) will take steps to protect their interests (perhaps by supporting populist groups that give them the tools of government), while the ordinary people will see their standard of living and rights slowly eroded.

It sounds like a dystopian novel. I wish it was, but I fear it is a forecast for the next hundred or so years.  I hope I can see out the rest of my life in relative safety and comfort but I fear for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

One of the speakers wants to cut the world population by reducing births. While a reduction of numbers is essential, a lack of young people with new ideas and energy will only hasten the descent into chaos. So, I don’t know what the answer is.

I don’t have any solutions, but welcome ideas.

………………………….

So, let’s look the other way, forget reality and delve into my fictional world of Benefactors.  Here’s the next episode.

Benefactors: Part 8

Chapter 8

Helen didn’t know how long she had. It turned out to be what felt like a couple of hours before the lock clunked and the door opened. A young man appeared with a tray. He was unimportant, a junior, a servant perhaps. Behind him stood a pair in military style dress though without any badges or insignia. One was male and the other female although they looked almost like twins with short hair, bulging muscles and coms implants in the side of their heads. They both held weapons.
Helen wasn’t sure which of them to address her words to. Perhaps none of them. Perhaps there were invisible listeners who would act on the message.
She spoke loudly and clearly. ‘I need to see someone. The man that visited me before or someone else. I have important information I must divulge. It is vital that you pass this message on. If my memory is wiped before I am able to speak then the future for this nation is dire.’
The servant and the guards made no sign that they had heard her. The tray was placed on the desk and then he withdrew. The door closed and the lock clunked again. Helen sat and tasted the food – a tasty chicken casserole. She found she had an appetite.
She had only just put down the blunt plastic fork when the door opened and the gaoler entered.
‘I understand you have something to say to me, Professor,’ he said in a bored voice that did not take Helen in. The speed of his response showed his interest.
Helen stood up, composed herself as she would before delivering a talk to a packed lecture theatre, and began.
‘I do and I think you will be interested. First of all let us put aside this idea that the tree’s genome is a hoax designed to fool me. Your involvement shows that this matter is far bigger than my reputation.’ She paused for a breath and to examine his face. He was impassive, but listening. ‘I can understand the concern about how people would react to the news that someone or something visited us eons ago and left us a secret message. I am not sure what effect that information would have on the populations around the world.’ The man’s headed nodded almost imperceptibly. ‘I also understand the government’s fears about what might happen if some of our, um, competitors made use of the information in the genome more successfully than ourselves.’ Helen noticed the man stiffen slightly. That indeed was his principal concern. ‘You think that by removing me and Darmaan and Fraser from the picture, by destroying the trees and the people who tended them, that the secrets can be hidden for ever. I’m sure you are also aware that history suggests that that course of action is not going to work. You can never be certain that the secret will not get out, and that has got nothing to do with whether, Darmaan or Jock or I managed to spread the word before we were, er, taken out of the picture.’ The man’s eyes flickered; a hint of anxiety. ‘How do you know that it was only Jock Fraser who took samples from the trees and got a hint of the secret that they hide. Who was it that destroyed the trees and killed their gardeners?’ The man shifted his weight on his feet as if uncomfortable. ‘But just think for a moment about the people or creatures, or whatever they were who planted the message in the trees all that time ago. How do we know that they just left the message once? Why just one tree in the Rift Valley. They could not be certain that the people they left tending the trees would survive for ten thousand generations. Okay, that is where we think modern humans originated and spread out from. But wouldn’t it have been sensible to leave copies in other plants in China, say, or South America, anywhere, to ensure that they would be found when we were capable of it.’
Helen stopped talking and watched the man. He had taken his eyes off her. He was thinking. She continued. ‘Our benefactors, let’s call them that shall we, did their best to see that our race progressed. As well as the message in the DNA they provided a drug that helped the people cooperate and work together. Yes, I’m sure that is the purpose of the toxic narcotic that you mentioned. They knew that it would be a long time before we were ready to understand their gift and I am sure they would have taken every step to ensure that when the time was right it would be available to us.’ The man was definitely agitated now, his mouth moving and his hands clenching and unclenching.
Helen went on. ‘If we are the first we must do what we can to interpret the message, and very carefully let the news out so that others do not try to stop us, steal it or keep it to themselves.’ She had made the case, now her statement had to get personal. ‘I, and Darmaan and Jock are already involved but what a waste it would be to wipe our memories. You need me, us, to lead the work of using this gift. I’m not being boastful but my main talent is running teams of researchers. I learnt it on the Human Genome Project. Now you need me on this which is far, far more important. Please give me, all of us, a chance to help.’
She finished and stood waiting for a response. The man looked at her then turned and departed without a word. Helen flung herself on the bed, her heart beating fast as it did at the end of any presentation. Had she said the right things? Had she done enough to save her mind? Had she saved the world?

Chapter 9

Jock had spent time in various prison cells in nations across the world. Sometimes his papers had not been “in order” or landowners had got upset at his “trespassing”, or rivals had had words with the authorities. It had never been more than a few days but he was familiar with bare walls, lack of furnishings and amenities, unpalatable water and food. This wasn’t one of those simple gaols in a developing country. This had freshly painted, strong walls, a bright light in the ceiling (which didn’t go off), an effective lock on the door, and was so insulated from the outside world he couldn’t tell whether he was still in the tropics or had been ferried to one or other of the poles.
Time passed. He rested on the hard rubber bed fixed to the wall. He was fed by a bowl pushed through a letterbox sized slot in the wall. Most of the time he lay thinking, feeling anger and remorse for the death of Ekuru Lengabilo and wondering at the fate of the boy and the old woman. He wondered what Professor Patel had found in the genome but realised that it must have been as special as he had guessed to have brought Special Forces all the way to the Rift Valley to extract him.
He was actually beginning to get bored with his company, particularly as he had no means of writing or recording his thoughts, when the door to the cell swung open.
‘Please step out of the cell,’ a voice said from outside. Jock jumped to his feet but walked very slowly to the doorway and looked through it. There was an honour guard of helmeted, armed and uniformed but unidentified personnel on both sides of the short corridor.
The squad leader at the far end of the corridor spoke with a firm but unthreatening voice. ‘Come with me, please, Dr Fraser.’ He beckoned Jock to join him. Jock walked passed the soldiers examining each. Their dark visors prevented him from seeing if there was any emotion at all in their eyes, but they held their weapons at the ready, with fingers on triggers. Jock joined the officer who turned and pushed the door open and they stepped out on to a small parade ground. A one-man quadcopter rested on the tarmac with its canopy raised. The seat was empty.
‘Get in,’ the officer commanded. Jock did as he was told, settling into the body hugging, memory foam seat. The canopy lowered. The craft took-off vertically, the four rotors whirring but the electric motors silent. Jock rose above the roof of the surrounding building and then the craft began moving horizontally.
‘What is the destination?’ Jock asked. Perhaps there was a communications link with the drone pilot wherever he or she may be or perhaps the craft was autonomous and would tell him itself. There was no reply. Jock looked out trying to interpret what he saw. He soon worked out that they were travelling north and the landscape looked as if it could be British but could equally be northern Europe or even some parts of North America. Britain was most likely. The small craft didn’t travel in a straight line and Jock presumed it was avoiding urban areas. He guessed that being battery powered the journey would not last long and indeed after an hour they descended to an air field. A helicopter stood alone on the concrete with a guard of soldiers around it similar to those at the prison.
The quadcopter landed and the rotors slowed to a stop. The canopy opened. Without waiting for an order Jock got out. Having recently been in Africa and then confined inside, he shivered in the cool breeze. One of the helmeted soldiers beckoned him towards the helicopter whose rotors were already turning slowly. The door in the side was open and Jock climbed in. There were no other passengers. Jock took a seat and the door was closed on him. At once the engines grew louder and Jock felt the slight lurch as they left the ground. He hurried to fasten the safety belt. The windows had been opaqued so he had no sight of the disappearing airfield and no way of determining the direction of travel. The change of transport persuaded Jock that he was in for a somewhat longer journey and with no companions to talk to decided that sleep was the best pastime for the journey.

…………………to be continued.

Jasmine enjoys a break

20180413_130523Last week we paid a visit to the Gladstone Museum in Stoke-on-Trent.  It is one of a number of museums in the six towns that celebrate the ceramic industry that made them famous. However the Gladstone Museum is a “working” museum based on one of the last factories to use the iconic bottle kilns.  Pottery was manufactured on the site from the 1770s until the factory closed in the 1960s when it was preserved as one example of the hundreds of similar factories and thousands of bottle kilns that once occupied the area.  The museum reveals the processes used and the lives of the people who worked in the industry. We followed the laid out route which takes you through the factory and the stages in the manufacture.  I am always fascinated by the materials and methods used by industries and the Gladstone satisfied me with displays and description of the treatment of the pottery from mixing the base ingredients to the final decoration and packing.

WP_20180413_13_48_54_ProWhat the Gladstone also does well is to bring the workers alive. What was striking was the huge number of specific jobs that the process demanded.  Each job required skills acquired over many years so that the task could be done as quickly and accurately as possible. Many of the jobs had names which are forgotten now or seem a joke.  Yes, there were saggar maker bottom knockers who performed a vital role. There were jobs for men, women and children.   All worked long hours and sometimes weren’t paid at all if a firing failed and a job lot was lost. The conditions were terrible. Many of the tasks were carried out in an atmosphere of clay or flint dust, which lead to silicosis, a nasty lung disease. Many developed lead poisoning from the compounds used in glazes and those working the kilns suffered eye and lung problems from the high temperatures and severe burns ended many lives or careers.  In the early 1900s the average life expectancy of a pottery worker was still under 40 years.

WP_20180413_13_51_05_ProWhile new laws during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gradually removed young children from the workplace and provided some protection to workers it was still hard, physical labour right up to the closure of the factories after the 2nd World War.  Those who joke about ‘elf and safety need reminding how long it took to provide factory workers with some protection and how the various clean air acts and pollution measures have improved our living environments.  With the current demands for equal pay it was interesting to note the pay rates in the factory where, regardless of how skilled the jobs were, men earned more than double the women’s pay and children received mere pence. In fact the visit to the Gladstone Museum was a reminder of how different our lives are today.  The manual, dirty jobs which made fortunes for factory owners in the past have been handed over to people overseas who are willing (?) to accept poor pay and unhealthy conditions to feed themselves and their families.  How much longer can the economies of the rich western countries rely on the developing world to do our dirty work including dealing with our waste? How much longer can the Earth cope with our wasteful existence.  

The coal-fired bottle kilns were eventually replaced by electric and gas kilns because they were labour-intensive and dreadfully inefficient. Stoke may have lost its defining industry but is a cleaner place now, despite the congested traffic. It no longer makes the contribution it once did to the UK economy. Places like the Gladstone Museum now bring visitors but is that sufficient replacement for the industry that once drove the town?

…………………………..

I’m still giving Jasmine a rest and giving you some of my SF instead.  Below is the second episode of Benefactors, a story that originated from an article in New Scientist magazine.

Benefactors: Part 2

Helen’s eyes widened. ‘That’s a striking name. Did the sequencing show anything?’
Jock hauled a scroll out of his bag, unrolled it and started fingering the screen. ‘Well, first it proved that the tree is a previously unknown variety and from the mitochondrial mutations it branched form the more common stock about two-hundred-thousand years ago.’
Helen nodded, vaguely interested, but none of this seemed unusual or exceptional. ‘But something must have brought you to see me?’
Fraser grinned and handed over his scroll. ‘There is and it confuses the devil out of me.’
Helen flicked through screen after screen of DNA base sequences. ‘Why?’
‘I know you can’t see it immediately but when we examined the sequence we saw that the whole genome was huge, much larger than in other varieties. There seems to be a vast amount of junk DNA that doesn’t make sense.’
Helen shrugged, ‘All genomes contain what some people call junk. My work has been to find out if it really is.’
‘I know. That’s why I’m here.’
Helen still didn’t understand what had brought this throwback of an explorer panting to her office.
‘So? What is special about this particular junk.’
Jock’s face lightened as if he was about to announce something momentous.
‘For a start the genome is huge; bigger than any other organism, so I’m told; and secondly because no one at the company labs recognises any of the sequences.’
‘Really?’ Helen said dismissing Jock’s statement. He was a simple botanist; he couldn’t possibly understand genomics.
Jock sighed as if he had expected her response. ‘Look, I’m no expert at this stuff but we have some young, very capable sequencers back in the company labs with some very expensive kit and their boss, Maria, Dr Sanchez, assures me that the bulk of the genome of this plant is made up of a sequence that they don’t recognise from any plant, or animal. I’ve come to you because you’re the top guy in this field.’
The flattery didn’t affect Helen. She knew she was good. She’d built her career on making sensible decisions and moving forward the science of gene sequencing in small, carefully checked steps. She was renowned for her caution. Now she was faced with this fool from the outdoors who was gabbling nonsense.
‘Look, this talk of junk DNA is an old story. We think almost all of the DNA in an organism has some purpose even if much of it seems dormant. Genes code for proteins. What does your stretch of “junk” code for?’
Jock smiled. ‘The lab rats tell me that it doesn’t code for any known proteins. The codons don’t even match naturally occurring amino acids. Maria says it’s as if the sequence of bases is in another code entirely.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Helen said, but her mind was ticking over now. ‘Leave it with me. I’ll check it over and see what your young people have missed.’
Jock pulled a memory button from his pocket. ‘I hoped you’d say that. It’s all here.’ He dropped it into Helen’s outstretched hand. ‘I’m heading back to Kenya tonight. I want to get more samples from the trees for comparison and to culture. The sample I was given may not be viable.’ He touched his screen and it snapped into a scroll. He stuffed it and the box of samples back in his bag.
‘I’ll contact you when I’m done,’ Helen said.
Jock stood up and slung his bag over the shoulder. ‘Thanks for that Professor.’

It was dark outside. Helen should have been home hours ago. She’d tried getting on with reading the papers but her eyes were repeatedly drawn to Jock Fraser’s tiny button sitting on her desk. She had given in, activated it and accessed her genome analysis programme. It hadn’t taken long to confirm what Jock had said. The first part of each chromosomal sequence was the normal set of gene markers and genes coding for familiar proteins but then the vast bulk of the base sequence was unlike any she had seen and seemed unrelated to the code of life found in all living things on Earth. She had run the analysis three times with the same conclusions each time. She had wondered if a virus had got itself written into the plant’s own genome but even that should have coded for common proteins. She had to admit that Jock was correct. The code was different. But if it wasn’t coding for amino acids with the familiar three base codons what was it? It was a puzzle and she liked puzzles; scientific ones anyway.
Helen stared at the screen trying to think of an answer. What other codes were there? Well there was Morse code, a series of dots and dashes coding for the letters of the alphabet. Writing itself was a code with the letters standing for the phonemes which were the components of speech. Then there was the simplest code of all – binary, the ons and offs, 0’s and 1’s used in fundamental computer programming and digital communications. How could the four bases of DNA be used to code in binary? Helen scratched her head trying to dredge up a memory.
She recollected some research on the use of DNA as long-term storage of computer programs and data. She did a search and found a number of reports. The researchers had used the four bases on DNA to represent numbers in binary. This key was used to build a strand of DNA that represented the lines of a computer program.
Helen was excited by the parallels with the genome of the ancient trees. Surely it couldn’t be a data store in binary? She wasn’t sure how to decode the DNA sequence but she thought she knew someone who could. She made a call from her desk. There was an impatient beep for a few seconds then the air in front of her was filled with a familiar face as black as the night sky beyond the windows of her office.
‘Hello, Darmaan,’ she said.
‘Helen? This is late for you isn’t it. What’s keeping you – one of your postdocs making outrageous leaps of imagination again?’ Sometime she had to call on Dr Darmaan Sharmarke for help in finding the gaps in the logic of her juniors when they placed too much faith in the abilities of the department AI.
‘No, nothing like that. I’ve got a problem.’
‘Your system playing up? Scroll not speaking to the net or something?’
‘No, I’ve got a problem, a conundrum, a puzzle.’
‘Oh. I can’t help with your genomics, Helen, you know that.’
‘But you are a program specialist, Darmaan.’
‘Hmm, yes.’ Darmaan looked confused. ‘What sort of puzzle do you mean?’
‘How could you decode a binary sequence written in DNA?’
‘Er, what’s that?’
Helen read out what she had noted from the reports. ‘A strand of DNA with the four bases standing for 00, 01, 10, and 11?’
‘I see.’ Darmaan pondered. ‘but you don’t know which base is which number.’
‘That’s right.’
‘There would be twenty-four different ways the four bases could code for those numbers,’ Darmaan explained, ‘but if there is a pattern in your DNA sequence then it should be quite easy to spot.’
Helen’s heart beat faster. ‘If I sent you a sequence of DNA could you read off the binary and see if it makes any sense?
Darmaan’s brow furrowed. ‘Yeah, I suppose so. Where’s this code come from.’ ‘Don’t worry about that, I’ll tell you if something pops out. It’s probably nonsense and I’m just being fanciful.’
Darmaan grinned, ‘You, Helen, fanciful? Never. OK, send it over and I’ll have a look’
Helen blew him a kiss and ended the call. She separated off the first thousand or so bases from the mystery sequence and sent it off to Darmaan. He was an inveterate puzzle solver. He’d be intrigued by the problem she’d set him, especially with her not giving him the full story. She signed off from the system, dropped Jock’s button into her bag and set off for home at last.

Chapter 3

Helen logged on and summoned her screen while yawning and clapping a hand over her mouth. Not only had she been late getting home she had barely slept thinking about Jock’s weird plant. Now she needed a coffee and was about to call Sarah to bring her one, when she read the screen glowing in the air above her desk. There were numerous messages from Darmaan asking her to call him. She sat down and put through the call.
‘There you are. At last.’ Darmaan said. ‘Where have you been?’
Helen glanced at the time. ‘Hey, it’s eight-thirty. I’m actually early this morning.’
‘I’ve been trying to get hold of you for ages.’
‘I can see that. Did you get anywhere with that sequence I sent you?’
‘Did I! Is there more of it?’
‘Uh, yes, some,’ she said confused by Darmaan’s excitement.
‘I need it.’
‘Why? Does it mean anything?’

……………………to be continued.

Jasmine off-duty

WP_20170826_14_01_13_ProIf you are reading this on the day that it is published I am at the Author-signing event in Telford hoping to sell some of my books. I hope that this event attracts readers with a bit of cash in their pockets and is not just a day spent in a room full of writers flogging their wares to each other. I am amazed by how much effort some of the writers put in to providing trinkets to accompany their written work.  I could be disparaging and call it tat but actually some authors really seem to spend a lot of time crafting the bits and pieces that support their written efforts. Is this really want book buyers want? I’ve got bookmarks and postcards but that’s it.  All my effort goes into producing the books.

…………………….

This week I watched a programme on autism by autistic people.  It suggested that over 1% of the population are somewhere on the spectrum.  Of course most of those are functioning pretty successfully in society but have questions about themselves and how they fit into the community. About the same number of people are thought to be gender-variant in some way or other and there must be endless minorities claiming similar numbers. I wonder who is “normal” or indeed what that term even means. The autistic presenters seemed to lump all “normal” people together as if they never had any self-doubts or worries about their place or role in the world. I believe that the marvellous thing about humanity is that we are all different. We have a wide range of physical characteristics, personalities, aptitudes and abilities that make each one of us unique, and we each have our problems and questions. I also wonder if this search for a medical term to attach to ourselves is just a means to find people who are like us; a label to tell us which group we can belong to. I am not denying that there are many severely autistic people who need a great deal of support and understanding in the same way that those with severe gender dysphoria need swift assessment and treatment to put them in the gender that matches their personality. What I do want to see is acceptance by society that there is no norm which everyone should aspire to.

……………………………..

I am still giving Jasmine a rest although I must get down to editing Molly’s Boudoir soon. It’s had a month or two resting in my computer files. I have been thinking and planning to start a couple of SF/Fantasy novels but as usual cannot quite decide which to begin with. Can I write two novels at the same time?

In the meantime here is another SF story I wrote a year or so ago from an idea that arose from an article in New Scientist magazine (New Scientist no. 3056 16th Jan 2016 p.27  I plant memories in seeds, Karin Ljubic Fister). I was considering developing it further and I may, but decided that actually my idea wasn’t particularly original (the scientific research moved faster than I imagined) and the story contained elements of older novels by more skilled writers.  Ideas and plots can’t be copyrighted and I wasn’t guilty of plagiarism but the plot was a bit too familiar.  Nevertheless I enjoyed writing it and doing the research into the east Africa scenes.  I haven’t been there but I hope I captured something of the atmosphere of the Rift Valley.

North Kenya 2

North Kenya (the fold is in the map not the landscape!)

Anyway, let’s see what you think of Benefactors.  There will be  a number of episodes over the next few weeks.

 

 

Benefactors: Part 1

1

Two men wearing red and orange cloaks over their traditional woven skirts, approached the grove of trees arguing with each other. Jock Fraser listened then raised a finger to his earpiece. All he was getting was whistles and clicks fed from the smartphone in the breast pocket of his gillet. He turned to the man sitting next to him on the dusty ground. He resembled the arguing men in looks but was wearing western style dress.
‘I’m not getting a translation of what those guys are arguing about,’ Jock said. ‘Aren’t they speaking Samburu, Ekuru?’
The dark skinned Ekuru Lengabilo shook his head. ‘There is some similarity but they are using their own speech.’
Jock frowned. He was not used to being out of communication with the people around him. ‘Can you translate for me?’
‘I have some words but this language is only spoken by these people. They are few and do not travel far from the trees that they tend. It is an old tongue without the words for modern ideas like phone and truck.’
Jock sighed. ‘Well, see what you can manage. What are those two arguing about?’
‘How much the one with the necklace is willing to pay the other for a goat.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Jock saw two other people arriving, a man and woman. They were not speaking to each other, in fact they were looking in different directions as if they did not even want their view sullied by the image of the other.
The arriving pairs looked at Jock and his companion with sour expressions then sat with him amongst the scruffy, low trees. Others arrived until there were about a dozen sitting in a circle. The murmur of chatter slowly faded.
A child of about seven years approached the group carrying a wooden bowl. She, Jock surmised she was a girl, moved around the circle and each person took a leaf and put it in their mouths. The girl came to Jock and he too took a leaf. It was taken from the trees under which they sat. He chewed. The taste was bitter and the flavour not particularly pleasant but he persisted as did the other people. Talk resumed. Jock noticed the couple, man and wife perhaps, begin to converse. They seemed happy to acknowledge each other’s presence now. The two men who had been arguing now spoke to each other more conversationally, nodded and smiled at each other. Others chatted amiably and Jock too felt content and happy to be amongst these people who he had not met before. He felt a connection with them that seemed more than just sharing the shade of the trees.
An elderly man used his stick to haul himself to his feet. He addressed the small crowd but looked towards Jock and Ekuru. Lengabilo interpreted haltingly.
‘He welcomes you on behalf of the people of the God Tree. He thanks you for your gifts and your offer to speak on their behalf to those that rule over us.’ Jock felt a bit guilty at hearing that – he was a botanist not a negotiator and he carried little influence with the government officials despite having drug company money behind his expedition. All he knew was that like most small indigenous tribes these people were under threat from the exploiters from the capital and beyond. He nodded in acknowledgement to the tribe’s elder and felt an unusual bond with him and determination to help.
Another child walked towards him carrying something on a bark tray. The elder explained that it was a gift from his people. The young boy who had such similar looks that Jock guessed he was related to the girl, a slightly older brother perhaps, smiled at Jock and handed over the bark. On it lay a small twig with a few leaves and a seed pod. The leaves and pod were dry and appeared brittle. They had obviously been plucked from one of the trees some time ago. Jock found this gift much more interesting than the words.
The elder was still speaking and Jock’s interpreter made it clear how much an honour this gift was: one of the last remaining seeds of the tree from the most recent flowering a decade ago. Jock knew how lucky he was. In their earlier conversations he had learnt that the next flowering, if indeed the trees survived that long, would not be for another thirty years or more and few of the seeds collected from the previous crop had germinated and taken root. There were probably no more than a dozen living examples of the tree. Most of them in this small grove.
Why was the tree special, Jock asked himself? It was small, spindly and slow-growing. Its wood was of little practical use, the leaves were edible but provided little sustenance and the seeds too rare to be of any value except ceremonially. All Jock knew was that the leaves appeared to contain a mild narcotic, hence the feeling of conviviality that he and the congregation felt. Why therefore did the people invest so much of their time in tending and protecting the trees? Was it simply tradition?

2

A tap on Professor Helen Patel’s door caused her to look up from the paper she was reading on her scroll. She felt a brief feeling of annoyance.
‘Yes?’ she called. The door opened and Sarah, her secretary looked in.
‘Doctor Fraser is here. You remember he asked for an appointment.’
Helen sighed. Why couldn’t the man have just sent an vemail or simply a text. ‘Oh, yes. I suppose you’d better send him in.’
Hardly had she spoken than a man brushed passed Sarah and hurried in to the office. His pale freckled face was peeling and his ginger hair windblown. He wore khaki shorts and a multi-pocketed gillet over a check shirt. His message had said that he was a field botanist. Helen wondered if he had come to her straight from an expedition. She half rose from her chair as Fraser advanced towards her with his arm outstretched. She took his hand and he gripped hers in a firm handshake.
‘Please sit down Doctor Fraser.’ Helen said sinking back into her own seat. Fraser pulled a chair up and sat as close as possible. He placed a canvas satchel that had been over his shoulder on the desk.
‘Oh, please call me Jock,’ Fraser said revealing his Scottish origins in his accent as well as his appearance.
‘It’s your name?’ Helen asked not quite believing that there were actually Scotsmen called Jock.
‘No, it’s Johann. My mother was Austrian but most people ignore that.’
Helen decided not to go into Jock Fraser’s ancestry. ‘I don’t understand why you wanted to see me in person, especially as you’re a botanist and I am not.’
Fraser leaned forward, his eyes shining. ‘But you’re a genomist, a highly respected one.’
‘That’s true. I worked on the Human Genome Project as a postdoc and I’ve been in the field for more than three decades now.’
‘And you have worked on sequencing and gene expression in plants,’ Jock added.
‘Yes, mainly plants. What is it you want to tell me Dr Fraser, uh, Jock?’
Jock took a deep breath and began to open the straps of his bag. ‘I’ve just come back from a survey in the Rift Valley in Kenya.’
Helen had an image of wide open savannah with elephants and lions, and insects and snakes and hot sun. She remembered why she preferred the lab.
‘Sounds lovely,’ she said.
‘Very exciting,’ Jock agreed. ‘The expedition was paid for by a drug company which I won’t name for now. We were looking for plants that may have medicinal properties that could provide the precursors for drugs.’
‘Ah, yes,’ Helen nodded, ‘a valuable job. We need sources of new medicines. Did you find any?’
Jock shrugged, ‘One or two that may be useful, but we also found this.’ He took what looked like a plastic sandwich box out of the bag, placed it on the desk in front of Helen and lifted the lid off. Inside were couple of small oval leaves and a shrivelled brown seed case. Helen didn’t recognise the plant.
‘A tree or bush?’
‘A small tree. No scientific name yet. Never recorded before, except by the indigenous population. In fact, we think there may only be a few of the trees, restricted to one small area.’
‘Almost extinct then?’
‘I hope not,’ Jock said. ‘The trees live for many hundreds if not thousands of years and only produce seeds once in a lifetime. A lifetime of the locals that is: about every forty years. They tend them and celebrate when they flower.’
‘Is it a potential drug source?’ Helen asked, wondering why Jock was showing her the specimen.
He shrugged, ‘Perhaps. The leaves contain a mild narcotic. The locals chew them during tribal gatherings. It makes them feel gregarious and cooperative. There could be a use for that, but the taste is pretty disgusting.’
‘Oh,’ Helen said wondering where this conversation was going.
Jock sat up straight as if about to start on a story. ‘That was the reason the Company decided to sequence the tree’s DNA, but I wanted to know more because the locals call it the God Tree – in their language of course.’