From Caithness to the Universe

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From The adventures of Hernia Globule

Henrietta Glob became Hernia Globule soon after she went to school, and the highly appropriate nickname had stuck with her ever since. I’m not sure what the politically correct way of putting it is, but Hernia was, shall we say, gravitationally challenged. 

For many years the few pleasures in her life had revolved around eating. 

It was a very, very long time since Hernia had donned anything resembling sporty gear. I do not claim to know anything about the details of the sizing of women’s wet-suits but anything that might fit Hernia would have so many X’s before the L that its box would be too big for Royal Mail to deliver. Hernia in a wet-suit was indeed such an incongruous proposition that such a thought had never arisen in the brain of anybody on the whole planet. Until now.

For Hernia to take up surfing was as impossible as an evaluator in a patent office devising an all-encompassing theory of space, time and gravitation. So the brain just laughed, she might, after all, rather like the idea of going to the International Space Station. It was equally inconceivable and unthinkable.

But what are you doing Hernia? You can’t do that!

Yes she can. Hernia is going to feed the seagulls. Something you should never, ever, do. Anyone who has gone to school at Mount Pleasant, just a few hundred yards away across the river-mouth, would know better. It was part of the initiation of the innocent five-year-old country child into the unfairness of the real world. On that first morning, sitting out in the sunshine on the edge of the playground at break-time he reaches into his brand new school bag and carefully extracts the banana or biscuit lovingly provided by his mum as that morning’s ‘playpiece’. He brings it slowly up to his mouth when BANG – something huge and flapping and frightening has swooped down and it’s gone! He screams and runs back into the classroom in tears of fear and disappointment to learn the first lesson about seagulls. 

Any tourist who had bought a fish supper and then sat on a bench at the sea-front would have known better when, while fending off one bird with flailing hands another lands and scatters the whole basket of chips over the ground for a hundred others to feast on. Of course Hernia does know better than to encourage the seagulls but she is going to do it anyway.

But what are you doing Hernia? You can’t do that!

Yes she can. In her multiple layers of fat she’s pretty immune to cold and she sits down at a picnic bench outside the café. She opens her bag and extracts a packet labelled ‘Atenolol. 100mg. One tablet to be taken daily.’ Quickly she pops the 28 pills from their pouches and throws the whole handful into the air! 

Most of them hit the ground before they are gobbled up. 

But those are your blood pressure pills, Hernia. What will they do to the poor birds? 

Another few dozen gulls have settled on the walls and benches around, mewing and screaming, having seen that food is being served.

Hang on, Hernia, those are your heart pills. You can’t!

Yes she can. Hernia takes out the packet of amiodarone, pops one pill at a time from its little wallet, carefully labelled by day of the week, and throws it into the air for a bird to catch. 

Hernia pulls out another packet at random. This one is labelled ‘Cipramil’. She pops all the pills out and tips the whole lot on the ground where one bird scoffs the lot. That should make it happy. She follows it with a packet of Zantac. Perhaps that will stop the gulls getting upset stomachs from their strange new food. 

But Hernia, you really don’t want to be feeding the gulls senokot!

And so, packet after packet is opened and thrown to the birds till her bag is empty. Some of the gulls are hopping round in circles on one leg looking sideways at the sky. Others are looping the loop upside down, making narrow passes under the bench. Still others are giving a passable imitation of a passenger with poor sea-legs on the deck of the Hamnavoe ferry during a rough crossing to Orkney. Hernia slowly hoists herself out of the seat and, no, surely you aren’t going to add to the plastic waste in the oceans, and that’s a re-usable bag, it will cost you 10p for a new one! She lifts the bag high to catch the wind and lets go, the blue carrier soars free, out across the river, scattering empty boxes and pill wrappings.

But Hernia, you can’t just stop your medications without consulting your GP!

‘F*** that!’ she says to herself. She waddles back to the car and drives home.

The sight of the surfer had brought sharply home the futility of her present life. What was the point of just eating, watching daytime TV and taking more and more pills? She might as well be dead. Something was going to change. At the age of 54 she was going to take charge of her life, even if it killed her. She was never going to take another pill, ever again.

From Request Stop

I was the only passenger on the train.

‘The next stop is Altnabreac’. There is no more isolated station in Britain than Altnabreac, in the heart of the Caithness flows and five miles from the nearest public road. ‘This is a request stop,’ continued the message – but wait a minute, that wasn’t what it said at all. As the display repeated it read: 

‘The next stop is Altnabreac, where this train will terminate’.

I had to find out from the guard what was going on. I wanted to get home, not be dumped in the middle of nowhere at 10pm.  The train was revving hard, climbing the county summit and I hurried down towards the front, noticing that wet sleet was starting to build up on the windows. I hammered on the locked door of the driver’s compartment, shouting ‘Hello, hello’. There was no response, I pounded on the door and shouted again. 

The train was gathering speed as the incline levelled off but the engines, instead of easing off, continued revving. Still no response from the driver or guard. The engines were still working hard as we began the long downhill towards Altnabreac, I had to hold onto the seat-backs as the carriages rocked and swayed. A sudden lurch threw me sideways, and I almost hit my head on the window. The train was still revving furiously and hurtling downhill, it must have been getting up to 100mph.

From Connections

It was turning towards dusk on a late Sunday afternoon as I drove my red Porsche through Helmsdale and began the climb over the twisty hills of the Ord of Caithness. Typical Caithness weather, a gale from the east, grey skies, rain spotting in the wind, the air misty with salt spray from the sea. After the final hairpin the road climbs up the hillside and rounds a bend to cross the summit of the Ord. Here on clear days are views to the Cairngorms nearly 100 miles away, with the sparkling sea far below. Here too a big sign welcomes you to the county of Caithness, I glanced to the left to look and very nearly put the car of the road. The sign had been covered by a big poster like a sheet, tied strongly in place but still flapping in the wind.

‘Happy Birthday Lynne Thomas, 50 today!’

From The spirit of Bruan

The weather deteriorated again overnight and a blizzard had come in from the north by morning, with heavy drifting snow and whiteout conditions on the higher sections of road. By now, a ‘missing bus’ was on the national news, a coastguard team aided by a snowplough was battling along the road south of Wick searching for the stranded vehicle. Concern notched up considerably when they reached Dunbeath without having found any sign of the bus.

It was 24 hours before the storm abated leaving a landscape of huge snowdrifts. Now a helicopter joined the search, flying low along the route of the road, and the crew noticed that the crash barrier on the sharp bend at Bruan was damaged. There was some debris, partly covered in snow, in the field, soon determined to be panels from the missing bus. Gorse-bushes on the steep slope had been uprooted, there were wheel marks in the wet ground. It didn’t take long to discover the worst, the bus must have spun off the road on ice, gone through the crash-barrier, down the hill and over the cliff into Red Geo.

From Caithness to the Universe

Earth had been stripped of all human life by some awful alien culture. There was little indication of what or who they were, other than that they had struck with terrible speed and shown no mercy. It seemed there had been not one survivor. Those haunting, deserted ruins of Thurso are with me to this day.

It was, indeed the most primitive spaceship we had ever encountered but the first-generation life support system had somehow kept those two people viable for several hundred times its design life.

The damage of tens of thousands of years of travel was largely repaired before the couple were awoken and allowed to slowly acclimatise to their unlikely rescue and their new situation. Then I went to see them and, for me, a rare face-to-face meeting with oxygen breathers who lived at the same pace of life as myself. I don’t know which of us had the greater shock. 

They came from Caithness.

Humans were making the first primitive steps into space when a site for launching small satellites was set up in Sutherland, the neighbouring county to Caithness. Things developed from there, within a hundred years the old nuclear reactor test-site at Dounreay had become the world centre for the development of interstellar travel. Just two hundred years after humans first set foot on their own moon, plans were afoot for the first manned mission to a nearby star system called the Trappist, which, it was known, held habitable planets. The journey would take hundreds of years using the most advanced propulsion systems then available which could attain at most 1% of the speed of light. it was an incredibly bold and courageous step for such a young civilisation.

Is there a God? The accumulated knowledge of thousands of advanced civilisations allows us to answer that question definitively. To believers it is obvious there is a God. To atheists it is obvious there isn’t. Does matter produce mind, or mind produce matter? Is there an uncreated God or is there an uncreated universe or multiverse? All the scientific knowledge of the galaxy – and this is in itself is an odd thing – leaves these possibilities precisely balanced. Take your choice. Nor has anybody, anything, ever resolved that tension between the heights of good and the depths of evil. But there were devils and Hell. Most definitely. And one day they would pay us a visit.

Operation Desperation. A plan which had been developed over thousands of years, a plan which would drive a planet-sized hole through galactic law, a plan which would need every computer resource we had, a plan which would attempt something which had probably never been done in the universe before and would likely never be done again. A plan which could never be tested and had just one chance of working. A plan which, even if it succeeded, would destroy everything we had, perhaps including our own lives and the lives of our guests. A plan of which the probability of success was simply unknown. It was the only possible way. And we would somehow have to survive 24 hours of intense, repulsive, concentrated hate beamed at us from trillions of devils.

From Kill-switch

If the service that Sunday was intended to show that God was dead and that church was completely irrelevant to the 21st Century, it could hardly have been planned better. Worship had begun with a very old familiar hymn, ‘Praise my Soul the King of Heaven’. Of course when it was written nearly 200 years earlier, no-one had ever sung it because it was a new one. Nowadays, anybody under the age of 65 could not avoid being distracted in the wrong direction by the line about ‘dwellers all in time and space’. Then came the hymn about royal diadems, whatever they are, which also includes the immortal words ‘let angels prostrate fall’. The elderly congregation was mostly female but an unfortunate word similarity immediately sent the minds of the few men onto a dismal track. Worse was to come for the women in the next hymn with the line about ‘through every period of my life’. The crowning glory though, before the sermon, was the old one about the still small voice of calm. How could anyone leading worship restrain a giggle at all those elderly widows singing ‘breathe through the heats of our desire…’  (Yes, that really is in the hymn!)

It was during that line when the back door opened and somebody came in. She – a tall, attractive young lady with long golden hair – walked straight down the aisle between the old pews in which the scattered congregation of 30 or so folk was dispersed. The minister looked, well, surprised, and still more so as she mounted the step to the dais and turned to face the congregation. The singing petered out after the next line. 

‘Er can I help you?’ began the minister in the embarrassed silence, even after decades of leading worship this was a new one on him.

The lady turned towards him, smiled, and removed her coat, displaying a strapless dress held up by a very large bosom. He blushed red. His very straight-laced wife was sitting a few rows from the front.

‘Please take a seat,’ he continued, gesturing towards the pews.

She undid something at the back of her dress and the top descended, revealing, indeed, a very fine pair. The minister gestured frantically to the senior deacon, a sprightly lady in her seventies. But she seemed frozen in her seat as the young woman now stepped out of her dress, pants and shoes and advanced naked on the horrified gown-clad minister. He backed away, missed his footing and stumbled down the step, collapsing into the aisle. The woman dived on top of him. 

‘Get her off me!’ he shouted. 

Pandemonium ensued. Several deacons grabbed the woman and tried to pull her clear but she was intent on the minister, already she had his gown off and was pulling at his trousers. Perhaps he was trying to remember the next line of that hymn: ‘let sense be dumb, let flesh retire,’ as someone shouted ‘Call the police!’ Fat lot of good that would do. They were all down in Dingwall for the match between Ross County and Celtic.

I will draw a veil over the rest of that morning. Suffice it to say that the lack of strong fit people in the congregation meant a lot more discomfort for the minister’s wife before at long last the police arrived with enough force to end the incident.

From Wings

Henry strode across the A&E waiting room with his bag and disappeared through the back door. A man was sitting there, having hobbled in with a broken ankle half an hour earlier ‘I know they’re short staffed,’ he thought, ‘but things must be really bad if they have to call in the vet!’