Extracts From The Diary of Dr JA Earnshawe (Part 11)
Thabo Village, Nong Khai Province Sunday 27th March 2005
I was gone from the world. Figures belching fire were spinning menacingly around me. Dressed in black with evil eyes glaring from slits in their balaclavas, they carried me downwards, abseiling down the mountainside; ever downwards into the bowels of the Earth (not unlike a chocolate box advertisement that used to be on TV).
‘Oh no, I thought; ‘I am damned – I am going to hell.’
But no, perhaps I was wrong. As I was carried into the body of a huge bird and lifted, quite majestically, into a crack of blue that had appeared in the grey sky, to be effortlessly transported heaven bound, I reconsidered.
Perhaps I had not been judged a bad man – maybe I was even a worthy man!
I slowly came round from the deep sleep of death. Dazed certainly, but clear enough in my mind to know where I was. There was no doubt about it; I had arrived at the Gates of Heaven.
‘How are you?’
A man looked into my face, a kindly man with a kindly voice that radiated magnanimity and authority. Could this be St Peter? I wondered. He handed me a cup of coffee and then looked at me kindly some more – it was almost as if it was he who was in wonder.
‘Sir,’ he said continuing softly, ‘what you did was quite remarkable.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, trying to remember as much from my scriptures as I could. ‘I always tried to be a good man. I did unto others what I would have committed unto my neighbour’s wife – if I’d been given half the chance. Though I walked not into the shadows of evil, I confess that my rod and staff did comfort me occasionally. I suffered the children to come unto me – there was always a little crowd around my desk. I believe I was usually kind to animals – I am very sorry for Poli – I am not used to guns and did not realise the trigger had such a fine mechanism.’
‘Sir,’ he corrected me. ‘I do not require debriefing on the broad outline of your career, although I have no doubt that would be interesting and perhaps even relevant. What I would like you to tell me now is the answers to those questions which immediately intrigue me.’
‘Anything,’ I said, ‘you will have my full cooperation.’
‘How did you know about the plot to kidnap the French Ambassador?’
‘But I did not know,’ I protested. ‘It was all accident.’
‘Your highly professional intervention? Your expert anaesthesia of the target in the airport cupboard? Allowing yourself to be so passively taken in exchange, and then striking at the very heart of the organization at the crucial moment, before finally the firing the gunshots that warned our waiting team? Yes, our closing action; stun grenades and abseiling in to capture the unconscious terrorists was all well enough done – but you made it all a piece of cake for our chaps. It was you sir, that exhibited the outstanding bravery, fortitude and cunning. Yet you stand before me and dismiss it all as an accident?’
‘I am afraid it was,’ I confessed. ‘I am dreadfully sorry.’
‘Sir, I respect you very much. Yet I can, and will, discover the truth. As the old cliché goes; “We have ways…”’
‘I know this sir.’ I said. ‘I would never waste your time in lying to you. I know you are all seeing and knowing. Everyone knows that you all move in a mysterious way up here. You are everywhere at once – omniscient, omnipotent and er …omnibible – if that is a word.’
‘You flatter us sir. We are not quite as good as that…not yet anyway. Of course, as you know, the physical stuff is largely a thing of the past in our field of endeavour – the technology has moved us on to a more humane, but not a less efficient process of finding out what we need to know. I think we could learn quite a lot from your agency – but perhaps we too have had our little successes.’
‘Supersubs? My agency has always provided me with exemplary opportunities for practicing and honing my craft. I believe I have always done my best to carry out my assignments to their satisfaction.’
‘I have no doubt you are a ruthless professional.’ He said, continuing in his flattering, if rather embarrassing, tone.
‘Ruthless is not a word I would use comfortably to describe my technique,’ I told him, ‘but firm certainly – you need to have a certain amount of fortitude if you want to get anything done in my job. Of course I don’t shirk if I have to give out lines or lunchtime detentions occasionally.’
‘Your modesty gives you great credit sir. However, as I was saying, I believe there are one or two technologies we have developed which would perhaps surprise even you. This little machine before you, for example, we call Angus.’
Looking down at the contraption on the desk, I remarked that it looked rather like cross between a school calculator and Christmas tree flattened by a steam roller, as it sat there, looking clever, so many coloured lights flashing and making a funny little beeping noise like that of a reversing omnibus.
‘It may look unpretentious to you, but this tiny implement took billions of pounds to develop.’ he went on, sounding rather hurt by my diminishing appraisal of Angus. ‘This is the prototype – it alone cost 10 million pounds to put together. Think of it as a kind of lie detector – although this is by far too crude an analogy – like comparing a pencil and paper with a word processor.’
‘Yes you can’t beat a pencil and paper.’ I agreed.
‘Now sir, if you would just put your hand flat on its upper surface while I ask you a few more questions.’
Unfortunately, as I moved to put my hand on to little Angus, I caught the top edge of my cup, overturning a little coffee on the poor little thing. As it began to crackle and spark, the little flashing lights were extinguished one by one. It was still beeping, but I thought much more intermittently, and perhaps, rather more pathetically than before.
‘I’m awfully sorry,’ I said. ‘Have you another one?’
At first he seemed unable to speak. His eyes gaped. ‘No!’ he snapped. ‘I told you; this was the prototype – I haven’t even had a chance to use it under field conditions.’ He was rather flustered and loud now. It was such a trivial thing yet it seemed to so disproportionately upset him.
‘It is no problem,’ I said interrupting him, ‘I didn’t think it would be so much trouble – I didn’t really want another. To be honest I’m not that partial to coffee and anyway, I usually take tea – but I wasn’t asked…’
‘I wasn’t talking about the coffee you fool,’ he screamed; this time interrupting me in rather a petulant manner. ‘Do you realize what you have “accidentally” done…,’ his voice trailed off as though something significant had suddenly occurred to him, which seemed to simultaneously calm him in its discovery.
‘If you will excuse me a moment,’ he said in a quieter voice, ‘I need to check something with our information officer.’
I was left alone to think about my situation. Never could I have imagined in my wildest dreams that it would be like this at the Gates of Heaven. I had naively pictured St Peter walking out on a cloud in a flapping white gown, uncurling a huge and magnificent parchment scroll before reading his pronouncements in a fearful voice – or something of that sort. Technology had indeed advanced everywhere and I remained unconvinced that it was for the best. This place looked almost like a solicitor’s office!
Absentmindedly, I randomly tapped a few keys on a nearby computer. I can’t see what the fuss is about computers myself, I have never found a use for them. A large box appeared on the screen;
‘PLEASE CONFIRM YOU WANT TO COMPLETE THIS OPERATION’
I tapped another key, and another box appeared;
‘ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO FORMAT THIS SYSTEM?’
Then yet another box popped up;
“DO YOU REALISE ALL SYSTEM DATA WILL BE LOST IRRETRIEVABLY?’
I banged the whole keyboard in frustration. You see? That’s what it is about these infernal machines – they are so complicated and so deliberately annoying – why can’t they just do as they are told when they are told to do it?
Anyway (I continued to contemplate to myself), what is so wrong with a stout wooden pencil, a plain sheet of foolscap and an old fashioned filing cabinet? I nostalgically took out one of my trusty HBs and pushed it into the electronic pencil sharpener on St Peter’s desk. It seemed to splutter and roar as if it had never whittled a bit of wood in its life, before belching a puff of smoke and finally throwing out my faithful implement to the floor. That confirmed me in what I was saying. Technological advance? The only way to sharpen a pencil properly is with a Stanley knife. I looked at the mangled point of my pencil. It wasn’t only brown and charred – it even had a faint odour of coffee beans of all things!
Just then, St Peter came bustling back in. ‘We have ran a check on you Dr Earnshawe, err …well,’ he hesitated, ‘partially anyway – our computer system crashed in the middle of it – dammit – it’s supposed to be foolproof.’
‘Machines never are,’ I remarked.
‘This much I have learned; indeed they are not. Some fools are a match for any machine’ he said, fixing an angry stare upon me before suspiciously looking first at the shell of little Angus, then at his computer now with a black screen, and then to his smoking pencil sharpener, before moving his ever suspicious eyes back to me.
‘Before we lost our data,’ he went on, ‘there was enough information gathered to inform me that it seems you are what, and who you say you are – and what happened is therefore, remarkably, how you say it happened.’
‘So you believe I am an honest man?’ I said.
‘Yes I do. I believe the whole business was an accident. I would have welcomed your unfortunate nature if you hadn’t … well the least said the better. In short, you can go – in fact, you must go at once.’
‘Go where?’ I asked, suddenly struck with horror, ‘I mean, am I not to enter your gates?’
‘Heavens no! You can’t remain here.’ He said with a distinct note of trepidation in his reply. ‘Even we have a budget to maintain.’
I was devastated. ‘I take it you mean that I must then go below?’ I asked. ‘To that horrible place where there is no light – only insufferable heat, eternal vice and evil?’
‘Well, we can certainly take you back to Bangkok if that’s where you want to go. What I meant was – we can take you absolutely anywhere you wish – in a jiffy. My chaps and my chopper are ready and waiting. You tell me. Where is it you most wish to be? Only, for God’s sake, make your decision soon.’
‘You mean I haven’t died?’ I said my voice cracking with emotion. ‘I see now. I have merely been standing at the crossroads between life and death. I am free to go back to the world and live happily again among my fellow mortals.’
‘I can assure you that you are not dead Dr Earnshawe, although, if you would accept a word of caution; this time you came very damn near to it.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘those kidnappers were a ruthless lot.’
‘The kidnappers?’ he asked, wringing his hands as though he had them around someone’s throat. ‘I wasn’t thinking about the kidnappers,’ he said, before taking another sad look at the sad little carcass of Angus now lying completely silent on his desk.
‘If only the yanks had got there first – their friendly fire would have finished the job properly,’ he mumbled to himself.
I turned my mind to my unanticipated freedom – where indeed would I most wish to be? My first thoughts were not unnaturally for my mother country; England’s green and pleasant lands – within the bosom of my sister Grissel. But no, not England, not yet.
Could it be that I would rather be back again in my most reputable hotel sharing a bottle of fine wine with my friends Cummings and Foreskin? Again, no – my comrades could wait a while too – it wasn’t in my Hotel, reputable or not, where I now wished to be. I turned to St Peter:
‘I have made up my mind,’ I said at once, emphatically. ‘Please take me to Nong Khai province, to the village of Thabo. I now fully appreciate more than ever the transient nature of life. We all hang by a thread. Our dreams must be caught before they fly away.’
With what, I thought, was undue haste, a team was scrambled and I was flown away myself – back into the clouds at lightening speed.
I found that the large backpack I was instructed to wear on the journey was rather cumbersome. I had time to consider that it was perhaps better than the pair of wings with which I had almost had been endowed, and that how very hopeless I am with musical instruments – it would have take me until eternity to learn even a few chords on the harp.
Nevertheless, there was something digging uncomfortably into my side, and although I had been expressly cautioned not to interfere with my backpack, I tried to adjust it into a little more of a convenient position by taking hold of what I believed was the offending flap at the side – which in turn was joined to a small metallic ring …
‘No! Don’t pull that!’ someone screamed out from the front.
The warning came too late. Many yards of linen billowed out and foamed around us, filling the cavity of the chamber and spreading quickly among us.
Coincidental with my backpack misfortune, we seemed to hit a lot of turbulence and the men around me became surprisingly anxious. Obviously, we can’t all be experienced flyers. We rocked and lurched a few times, but even as we began to fall rapidly at one point, I remained perfectly calm and tried to reassure everyone. In spite of my efforts, fearful yells emanated around me, along with some very frantic activity. Eventually we righted ourselves and landed smoothly at our destination, just as the foam from my back pack was tamed and beaten down.
‘Thank you for an interesting journey Dr Earnshawe,’ a voice called out as I stepped back down to my beloved Earth once again. How good it felt to be back – I had another chance to live – and I was going to make the most of it!
Yet, even before I could say my farewells, the ear-breaking noise and wind from the huge machine was gone and I was left standing in the centre of a strange circus; a sawdust ring of wooden sheds on stilts, and an audience of little brown people; silent, watching and expecting. Expecting what? I did not know. The unexpected perhaps?
J A Earnshawe BSc PhD