Thoughts While Plummeting

I was asked to write a story inspired by general relativity. I struggled. This is the end result. It was broadcast on Radio 4, but seems to be missing the first few lines. So here is the story as written.

Daniel knew there were different laws for very big things and very small things.
He had found that out when he was eight years old. He had had to change schools.
He hadn’t known he was small until then. Everything seemed different when you turned eight.
Now, he was an oddity and a latecomer.

He couldn’t remember his baby years. Michael Flannery told him he could remember being born and everything since. On closer inspection, it turned out Michael was a keen fabulist. This was why he was good company in the parks and woods and on the swings, but he would grow up to be untrustworthy in a witness box.

Daniel thought he had probably liked school before.
He could piece together enough happy times to make a fabric of warm memories, all those games pretending to be Tarzan or the Six Million Dollar Man. Those four years could be measured out in the knee and chin scars from climbing frame falls and tree clambering escapades.

Then, the move from village to town.
The new school was a place where acquaintances had already been made while he was away somewhere else being happy. There would be no more scars caused by play and joy, just Chinese burns.
And that was when the reading really began.
No longer running into the playground to lark about with friends, now he hurried to find the largest tree trunk to hide behind and turn pages. The oak in the corner of the field was broad, the roots spread out to make a chair, it was hidden and safe and quiet.

He was barely noticed.
He was more ignored than bullied, too odd to touch, even if that meant a punch. On his first day, the established bullies and hangers on declared he was diseased.
Any contact would fell you with his own personal plague apparently, the plague of being new. He wasn’t even that different, not yet.

He wouldn’t excel in class. He chose not to. He preferred to sit silently, but he was taking it all in, and he was thinking, more time to think when there’s no friendships to guard or bolster. The teachers barely knew his name. Sometimes he wanted to put his hand up to tell the teachers what they were teaching sounded all wrong, but he went off into a daydream instead.

They weren’t always his daydreams, he used the daydreams of people he had read about.

He was the ship of Theseus, wondering how many bits of him could be replaced and whether he would still be himself when he was all spare parts made one. He was still playing the Six Million Dollar Man, both eyes replaced, both arms gone, and legs, and what of his brain?
He imagined himself made into a stone with thoughts plummeting to the ground in a vacuum while Galileo watched and noted.
He gathered up as many monkeys as he could fit inside his head and set them typing, wondering why this experiment forgot to include an infinite number of proof readers. Still not enough monkeys.

Then one day, during a particularly boring geography lesson, Mr Davis made glaciers so dull, he decided to get out of the classroom by sitting on a beam of light. It made his brain hurt to think of this. He didn’t know what it meant yet, but imagining was exciting. He smiled too much, he was noticed. The chalk hit his eye and, thrown off his beam of light so suddenly, he fell abruptly to the floor. They all laughed, but they didn’t know where he had just been.

The next day was a worse day. He became visible in the playground. Gavin Crocker was the regular boy who was there to be pushed and shoved and spited had chicken pox. In his hurry to the oak tree, he tripped, his cloak of invisibility fell. He had become the feature attraction for the barbaric boys. He didn’t cry as they shoved him and laughed in his face. They soon remembered why they didn’t bully him, he was barely there. What is the use of punching for a reaction if there is not an opposite and feeble flailed reaction? As his puddle reflection met his face, he was back riding on a beam of light. When they looked down at his dripping head, they did not know how far he had been traveling that break time. When he looked up, he saw the shriveled figures of old men in school shorts. They stood with sagging knees and sprouting, sallow faces. They were turning to dust, and they didn’t know it.
He smiled gently through the mud. They didn’t like that, they wanted the speccy spotted boy to be back as their plaything, this one was no fun. He was somewhere else all the time. They shambled off, stooped and forgetful, legs bandy and uncertain, their heads reflecting the sun. Some fell, emaciated, to the ground before they could get back to the class.

He was looking at the ripples in the puddle now. A teacher attempted to disturb him with an angry squeal and and a blow of his whistle.

Did Mr Davis imagine he had thrown himself into the puddle? Who knew what he had seen from the staff room door as he shambolically flirted with the science teacher. Daniel was beginning to realise that certainty evaporated when you thought through the possibilities. The angles were becoming important now. The geometry was defining him. Where were you looking from? How did it change what you saw…what you thought you saw?

Daniel didn’t like it when he first read about it. He read it again and again. Things had once been sure. He had read of a happiest thought, a man had it so long ago, before his grandfather had even gone to war.

The world seemed so full of people who had their one truth, so much solidity in their stance, that it was frightening to think they were all barking up the wrong tree, and that it might not even be a tree in the first place, and what they thought was barking was more a weird whine or the whistling sound that escapes from tombstone teeth.

He looked at the ripples as the mud on his face dropped back to the puddle.

The next time Gavin Crocker was ill, mumps this time, they shoved Daniel off the branch of a tree. He didn’t mind really, but he had hoped to be higher before he fell. He was only halfway through his climb when they knocked him down. He wanted to test the happiest thought. It meant cuts and bruises, but isn’t that woth it for the happiest thought? He had considered the autumn leaf mush and reckoned it would cushion him from a fracture. Even if his leg did break, he’d just have longer days to consider things as they might be. He was beginning to see patterns now. Things were taking shape. The earth looked different to him again. He hadn’t always got on with gravity. It was what pulled half eaten ice creams to the pavement, it was what kept him here.
But he knew he needed it too. He had been told it was a force, with the other three that he had been told not to worry about as you didn’t get tested on that until secondary. He knew his relationship with the earth, it pulled him down, but then he read things that changed that. Everything was curving. Apparently he was on a trampolene, Daniel thought that was what he had read. It had made him uneasy. He noticed he was tilting when he walked, the ground felt less solid than it used to when he thought it was a simple force dragging him down.

Whatever gravity might be, it all happened too quickly.
The greatest annoyance at being knocked off the branch with a cacophony of pebbles and stones was realising he just didn’t have far enough to drop. If he’d reached the top of the oak he thought he might be able to see if he would feel that happiest thought, would he feel his own descent or could he imagine he was floating and motionless, if only for a moment.

He tried to drag the time out as long as possible from branch to ground, but he wasn’t ready. The stones hit him without warning. He overthought everything as quickly as he could from the moment he had lost his balance. He hoped the myth of near death time dilation might be true. Gravity worked too fast, he had no time to take on other people’s happy thoughts. He was preoccupied until the pain of the collision couldn’t be held off any longer. There was blood, enough for everyone to scatter while thinking of hasty alibis. It was pleasing, there was more blood than pain. It was a spectacle that could be wiped away without calling for the ambulance. The nurse might send him home hobbling, but nothing was jutting out or snapped. The fall was longer each time he recalled it. He looped it in his head. When the nurse asked if he could feel anything, he said he felt happy. She presumed it was concussion.

Gravity had been his enemy, it was made him fall when he was pushed or when someone tied his bootlaces together as he sat on the sports bench waiting to not be picked. It was easy to do, because he wasn’t often looking. The things he saw were not in the foreground.

He was bandaged and back at school by the end of the week. He knew what he had to do now.
It was his task to make sure that his world looked different to him every day. If every colour, shadow and light beam looked the same on Wednesday as it had on Tuesday, then he’d failed to investigate hard enough.

He barely spoke at all now. His parents had begun to fear he was suffering selective mutism. They had heard a documentary on Radio 4 and thought he was the type that might develop a phobia of speaking. Daniel picked up on their fear and explained that he wasn’t saying much as he was “thinking about everything”. Whenever his mother looked worriedly at him, he would say something just normal enough to be reassuring. Not too normal, that would make her suspicious. He had never been so dull as to be normal in her eyes.
Some days, he even liked speaking. In his head, a table of men and women would debate ideas of stardust and infinity and gravitational waves. He didn’t really know what gravitational waves were, and apparently a lot of people argued about them, but he liked the look of what he thought they might be. He liked thinking about black holes. He read of a man who intended to make a lead suit as he thought that would be heavy enough to drag him through, wherever that was and wherever it went to.

When he got really excited, he would run down and let it all fly out of his mouth. His mum didn’t know what might be true, but she liked these moments, they changed the shape and texture of their universe for her too.

Some days, when he was tired or fraught, he could physically feel the new things he’d discovered, not just a feeling in his head, a feeling that the ground beneath his feet had changed too. It took some concentration to return it the outward properties it needed for him to carry on. Sometimes, he could feel the spacetime all around him .

Once, walking on a pier, he thought so hard about how much of an atom is empty space that he felt himself slipping a little into the planks by the whelk stall. He looked at his feet, and they were still firmly on the planks, and he decided he could not look away from his feet if he was to continue on, worrying that each step unobserved would see him sink back in again.

He was in spacetime and he liked it.

It was the last day of school. Things had been quiet for him for a while.
Everyone else was too excited. They were leaving childhood and going to secondary school, with all that that entailed. Too many changes, too fast. Almost everyone was boisterous. In the playground, Daniel was visible again. He did nothing more abnormal than usual. He went to his tree with his folder and books, and he started to draw his ideas of shapes and space and time and matter, but this time they followed.
He didn’t notice them staring. They were so rarely silent.
Luke, that was probably his name, grabbed one of the drawings. He thought he would laugh at it, but it made him angry.
He was drawing things they didn’t understand, and if you didn’t understand it, you had to smash it. They pulled the folder out of his hands. Opened the clasps and the pictures dropped out, shuffled and scrambled by the wind. Daniel said nothing. The drawings were replicated in his head anyway.
And so one started tugging him and tearing at his sleeves, and the others joined in, because if they didn’t, they might be oddities too. He felt the tree bark harsh on his spine. And then they grabbed each corner of him. They wanted him out and away from them. They wanted him gone from their territory, because they didn’t really know what their world was. They swung him back and forth, faster and faster, closer and closer to the fence. They counted down, and before they were at zero, in their eagerness to be rid of him, they let him go, and he was propelled over the fence, and at the height of his arc, he stopped, and he stayed, and he felt nothing. Everything else accelerated away from him. And the boys fell away, feeling for the first time a terrible acceleration they knew nothing of. And he vanished.
He was blissful. And everything stopped before him, and he could see it long enough to question it and count it, and he knew he would be there for a long time.

Josie Long and I are back with a new Book Shambles series – guests include Stewart Lee and Sara Pascoe (and coming soon – Mark Gatiss and Charlotte Church) –

A few Christmas shows coming up with Brian Cox – and some with Josie Long and Michael Legge –


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4 Responses to Thoughts While Plummeting

  1. liliannberg says:

    Absolutely beautiful! I loved it! I’m saving this story for my future (or imaginary) grandchildren. And for myself.

  2. CelticRose says:

    I loved this when I heard the podcast, but the complete version is even better. You’re a wonderful writer.

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