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Ian R Macleod

Song of Time

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Song of Time
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Unlike my two previous works, Song of Time's not an "Aether" novel, and covers the lifespan of a woman — a concert violinist named Roushana Maitland — born near the start of this century, who lives through many strange and changing times to witness the end of it. The book deals, amongst other things, with life, death, resurrection and the afterlife, as well as love, music, and the existence of god, or gods. If that sounds ridiculously ambitious, I think you'll find the end result is as quietly mysterious as it is wildly apocalyptic. Think Daphne Du Maurier meets J G Ballard at the same crossroads where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil. This extract from the start of the book might give you a better idea...

 Something white's lying on the shore as I cross the last ridge of shingle. Seagulls rise as I trudge towards it. I'd walk on if I could be sure that it was merely a salt-bleached log, but I can't simply turn away. The ground slips and a bigger wave breaks over my knees. A hand flails, limbs unravel, bubbles glitter, and a human face stares up from the retreating sea, masked with weed.

I grab a hand, an arm. A sudden backwash almost claims us, then, in a heave, I and the body are free. I look around. Splinters of dawn light part the clouds, but there's nothing else here along this shore but me, this man and the grey Atlantic. There are bruises, scratches, gouges, beneath the stripes of weeds which cover him, but otherwise he's naked. And he's obviously young, clearly male, and still alive — if barely. I struggle to turn him over and attempt to pump the water from his lungs, but already I'm exhausted. He struggles against me and blinks.

"Who are you?"

He blinks again.

"Where are you from?"

The blued lips shape to say something, then he vomits up the sea.

Arm in arm, we stagger towards the cliffs. The many steps which ascend to my house from beside the boathouse are of age-corroded concrete. I really should lay him here out of reach of the sea and hurry alone up to Morryn — I should alert the relevant authorities. Instead, his weight drags my shoulders as we climb together and the disappointed gulls swoop. His bare feet, as they stub and blunder, begin to bleed.

At last, we reach the chimneys of Morryn. We struggle up the sloped lawn, I stab my fingers at the controls on the front door, then we slump dripping into the hall. Where to put him? I have a bedroom upstairs which I reserve for the guests who never come, but I can't face another climb, so it has to be the music room. I kick open the door, then make a final lunge towards the red divan just as the weight his body begins to topple me.

Buffeted by weary waves of pain, I collapse on the chair beside my desk. Consciousness fades. When it returns, the figure is still sprawled across the divan. No, he's not a ghost, for there are dribbles of seawater across the rugs, and he's brought with him the smells of the shore. It did happen. His eyes are closed. A fallen hand twitches. It's stuck with fragments of shell, and the nails are cracked and chipped. Even allowing for the damage of our journey up those steps, his feet also look sore and abraded. Is all of this just from rocks and shingle? Standing up, I cross the littered rugs to examine him more closely. His skin has mostly shed the stripes and tangles of weed. It's blued with bruises, criss-crossed with scratches, greyed and reddened with many small abrasions, although underneath it seems softly, uniformly, goldenly, pale. His muscles are well-developed. His hair, both on his head and his groin, is drying to a darkish blonde. He could be a drowned Greek god.

"David, is that your name?"

The eyes flicker in a wet glint.

"Can you hear me...?"

A trailing leg moves. He's looking up at me now, but the gaze is barely focused. Muscles rope in a spasm, then he falls back. When the eyes slip closed again, I sense that he's shutting me off. In another moment, the breathing has slowed. The eyeballs flicker. He seems to be asleep...

Leaving him, I close and lean against the music room door. My senses blur. Just what am I doing? I'm soaked, stuck with the bits of shore and weed he's sloughed off on our journey. I, too, wish I could sleep, escape... But I head instead for the laundry cupboard. The house implement which airs and presses my linen extends its silvery limbs as I reach to scoop up towels and blankets, but I bat it away, then struggle with arms full to get the music room door open again. Inside, the automatic piano shines its wooden sail, filled with the morning which floods through the wide bay windows. Why did I choose to put him in this of all rooms, where everything is so personal, so much a part of me? These walls lean with awards, gold disks, rare scraps of manuscript, antique concert programs, images of my husband Claude conducting the world's great orchestras. The floor is strewn with family photos, old CDs, scraps of image, my children's crayon drawings. My desk is a shrine piled high with the past. My Guarneri violin lies waiting in its case. All I am is here — everything that I could find, anyway. Yet now I've brought in this stranger...

My hands are trembling as I cover my drowned man with blankets. He certainly isn't starved and — despite all these many small wounds — he looks almost heartbreakingly perfect. His body hasn't been distorted or changed in the way that so many are nowadays either, and his penis is plump and jaunty despite the cold. He simply is what he is: human, young, living, male. I'd forgotten how beautiful people can be in this pure animal state. His hand no longer twitches. As I lift his head to place a towel under it, he gives a small smile.

My mind circles the obvious point. This is far from the first time bodies have been found washed up along these Cornish shores. There always have been wrecks and drownings, and the refugee ships and dirigibles of all the recent diasporas often crash or sink when they are intercepted by the guardian subs and drones. And refugees are often male and young, just as they have always been. What happens to them if they are captured alive? Sent back, I suppose, to the droughts of Africa, the sink cities of Southern Europe...

Outside the music room's windows, the segmented sky and horizon remain empty. There are no ships, aircraft, or visible automata. Perhaps he's nothing more than an early-morning swimmer, caught by cramp or an unexpected current? But in that case, desperate relatives would already be searching for him. And if they were, drones and flitters would also be crawling and scanning the beach. People are easy to find now, at least the ones who are fortunate enough to live in these parts. We radiate like beacons to the waymarks which help protect our boundaries. If he were a local yachtsman heading out from Fowey or Mevagissey or Penzance, or pleasure-seeker, or cliffside walker, or merely a skinny-dipping tourist caught out by this treacherous sea, he would have been rescued long before I found him.

I study his face, trying to fix the features. Trying, as well, to remember what racial stereotype we are supposed to fear in this new century. Dispossessed Americans? Maoris? But those bogeymen lie in other decades. Now, people can make themselves look like anything. They can change their colour, re-arrange their genes. I risk raising the blankets again to check that he's breathing. He is — and everything else is still there.

 


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