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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Paul Radcliffe: So Bright They Were, So Bright

99_ym_sobright_stanton.jpg
Art by Henry Stanton 2023

So Bright They Were, So Bright

 

by Paul Radcliffe

 

 

            Memory was a distant shore. Familiar landmarks were shrouded outlines in gathering mist. Falling snow had settled and brought with it silence. In the lost hours after midnight, the hospice was quiet. Earlier that evening, a local choir had walked the corridors. It would soon be Christmas. They had sung of joy, of stars, and of journeying kings. The last echoes of the carols had long faded into the night. Peter did not sleep. There were other voices. They were distant, but grew harsh and insistent. They were calling for help. Voices that blended with screams. It was an unearthly pleading wrenched from the bodies of burned men, drowning men. There was desperation and the final anger, the terrible anger that came before the silence. He remembered the flames, reflected and dancing in mockery on the burning sea. The full moon glowed brightly above the hospice. With it came shapes and shadow and the crash of a distant ocean.

          Dying men. A dying ship. The merchant vessel Antaura in the early years of the war. It had been a clear night. The wake of the torpedo was glittering and arrow-straight in the waves. Antaura was an older ship, perhaps the oldest in the convoy. It had followed a weaving course. This made it a more difficult target for the predatory U-boats that followed. The pattern had slowed the Antaura. It had lagged behind the main body of the convoy, and thus beyond the protection of the gray-hulled destroyer escorts. It was the way of the enemy to track any stragglers. The crew of the Antaura knew this, as did every other sailor in the convoy. All knew they were exposed. On earlier voyages, they had seen the horror of other ships sunk. Death came from below the surface in the shape of six hundred pounds of explosive at the tip of a torpedo. He remembered the loss of a ship carrying iron ore. It had broken into jagged pieces. It sank in three minutes as the holds filled. None of the crew had survived. Some were shredded as the torpedo struck. Others would have died a terrifying death, splintered hands clinging to wreckage or pulled beneath the water as their ship sank. He had heard forty-seven men had been lost. He knew there was no rescue ship with the convoy. Rescue ships were adapted vessels with specialist equipment and accommodation for any fortunate enough to survive a U-boat attack. There was little chance of survival. All the crews were hopelessly vulnerable.

Behind the closed door of his hospice room, Peter opened his eyes. The lighting was subdued. There was a wreath of plastic holly fixed to the wall. In curving letters, it proclaimed Season’s Greetings in glittering purple tinsel. A smiling Santa beamed out from the wreath. It had been placed there by a kind-hearted volunteer. It would be Peter’s last Christmas on this Earth. His vision seemed to blur and shimmer, and he closed his eyes. He could still see the luminous trail in the water. He had known, with the bleakest of certainties, that the Antaura could not evade. The U-boat had followed. It had watched and anticipated the labored path of the aging vessel. Peter remembered that night. In the still winter air, he heard the howl of alarms and the whistle blasts piercing the night. The shouts of frightened men, the flurry of activity. Those few seconds became a lingering eternity. Time had slowed. As he watched the onrushing torpedo with its churning wake, something, impossibly, had come from the sea. He had no name for it, nor ever would. His life was running out, days like sand in an hourglass, yet the sight had remained vivid in his memory. So much was forgotten or no longer recognizable. What he saw that night had remained with him. It would remain till death and perhaps to whatever lay beyond. If there was anything beyond fire and sea and lost friends.

          There was a green radiance. It revealed a scaled figure. The outline rippled and writhed. The arms ended in glinting talons, the neck broad as a bull. It did not move with the waves but seemed, impossibly, to stand on the water. In an instant, he thought it some primitive creature risen from the lightless ooze of the ocean floor. The torpedo was rushing forward. Peter looked at the creature’s head. At the eyes. They looked directly at him and he saw stark malice. He saw cunning. And purpose. The jaw opened. He glimpsed two rows of curving fangs. There was a mouth, and it stretched, a parody of a smile. It raised one arm and pointed at him. His vision blurred. There was a sudden and terrible pounding in his head. The wake of the torpedo was arrow straight and closing rapidly on the helpless merchant vessel Antaura.

Above the wave-tops, the creature gestured toward the ship, and seemed to smile again. The brief moment passed. An explosion shook the world. It tore the Antaura into shapeless fragments, and hurled Peter, barely conscious, into the angry sea. Others may have survived, however unlikely, but he could not know. Barely conscious, he was supported by his life preserver. It had been a calm and still evening before disaster struck. He became aware of a growing wind that seemed to move him away from the rapidly sinking Antaura. He heard the screams of the dying. The pleading. He recognized some of the voices. They were far from even the hope of rescue. Hope is a desperate cruelty. It lingered briefly, dying in an ocean far from home. The flames were further in the distance now. Perhaps a few men still called, but time was unmeasured. The force of the impacting torpedo had hurled him into the welcoming sea, and a strange wind had borne him away from mortal peril. The night was passing. Dawn fringed the horizon. Peter could not see the convoy. It had disappeared into the distance. It was, he knew, for the greater good. To have halted would have rendered more ships vulnerable to the preying submarines that would be following. More ships lost, more men dead. A cruel and simple equation. Peter knew the Antaura had been far from land. It had been further from hope. The green sea was calm. As the long day drifted into evening, sunset shaded the waves. Beyond hope, Peter felt a deep resignation, a sadness shaded by resentment that a spiteful fate had brought him here. His life preserver seemed heavier now, though perhaps he imagined it. Peter’s chin was rubbed to a raw soreness. It did not matter. He would die of thirst or drown. It would end the same way. His friends had perhaps been fortunate, at least those who had died without warning. Preferable, maybe, to this slow drifting to a slower death. There was an aching in his head. Dehydration. It would continue.

          The hours passed. The sun fell below the horizon. A full moon rose. It cast a shifting track of light across the ocean. At another time, at a time when death was not following, he would have thought it beautiful. Absurdly, he remembered a childhood rhyme, a story about the man in the moon. How strange that he should think of that now. How strange. He noticed a froth of bubbles swirling in a growing circle. There was a spreading light. It was below the surface and seemed to be following him as he drifted. There had been stories about U-boats surfacing to assist survivors, even to direct lifeboats on their most favorable course. Hope flickered and died. This was not a submarine. It could not be. Perhaps it was some chance combination of wind and water. In any event, he would soon join his crewmates in death, taken by nature itself. As the light grew, he thought of what he had seen from the rails of his lost ship. Whatever it had been–and he knew he would never know–it had not been an illusion, a mirage born of imminent danger and horrified anticipation. It had been real, as real as the salt water that stung his eyes, and there had been a knowledge there, a bleak malevolence and a grim purpose. The light beneath the waves grew brighter, brighter than the reflected moon. The waters swirled. There was a piercing glow against the moonlight. For a fleeting, terrifying moment, he thought it a whirlpool, that he would be dragged to the depths.

          Something was rising from the sea, surging upward in a cascading rainbow of spray and froth. Peter’s eyes focused as he swayed in the churning waters. The figure was tall, taller than a man. Silhouetted against the darkened sky and the full moon, it continued to rise. In a wide and shifting circle, the sea around it seemed to calm. It was still. Beyond the edge of the circle, the waves were moving. Peter had known dread. It was always there for the men of the convoys, but there was a feeling now that he was in a world beyond drowning and whirlpools. It appeared to be cloaked. It was hooded. He could not see a face. He was, perhaps, within a few yards of the figure. The figure seemed to be looking at him. He was in a circle of still water. Peter was beyond fear. In a trackless ocean, he was confronted by something far beyond his understanding. It did not speak, yet he heard a voice. It had a faint echo. He heard, and he would remember for the rest of his life. It was hollow, clear against the lapping of the waves.

           “I am known as Vepar, though I have had many names. Your ship is gone forever. Your crewmates are all dead. You are in an ocean, as far from land as you are from hope. I am your hope, though I am far beyond your understanding…”

           Peter was swaying gently in the faint current. He was not hallucinating. He could taste the salt. He could feel the waters. The voice continued. It had saved him. For the moment.

 “...I aided you because of the ungracious intrusion of another power. I am Vepar, and I have dominion over many things. I have ascendancy over armored ships and those that they guard, over weather and storm. Below the surface, there are other forces. I think you have seen one such. They are not benign, Peter. Not benign.” The voice knew his name. It continued.

           "It did not convey to me the intention to sink your ship. In our world–of which you should be thankful you are ignorant–this is an act of grave discourtesy. To bring you safe to land may bring about their contrition. It is to be doubted.” Peter could still not see any features, but he looked at the silhouette of the figure. From somewhere, he found one word from cracked lips.

            “How?”

There was a silence, and the answer came. “Governance over the water is a noble authority. It does not serve me to see you die. I have powers of levitation, and you will rise over the ocean and be brought safe to land. Or would you rather become mud on the ocean floor, or perhaps a name on a monument marked NO GRAVE BUT THE SEA? To save you is to show the other power something of the consequences of contempt. You should know, however, that it will do evil for evil’s sake. Nor will it forget. There may come a darkness.”

 

Peter remembered these words as he felt himself rising from the water. He saw the stars, and the figure’s outline fading against the moonlight, and there was a rushing of air. He closed his eyes and knew no more. An eternity later, there was sand between his fingers, the crashing of waves on a shore, and the mocking cries of seabirds. In his room in the hospice, on a night in winter, he opened his eyes. There was a framed quote from C.S. Lewis, placed there, perhaps, to give hope to the dying. It read:

       ‘There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.’

Peter hoped that this was so. The hospice was not a place for doubt, and the pain in his head had been an unwelcome visitor over the passing years. It had been diagnosed as migraines, long ago. There were certain triggers that made it worse, bright light and, curiously, being caught in high wind. His vision would blur, there would be lights, and nausea and pain would encompass his world till it passed. In recent years, the headaches had grown slowly worse, the medication less effective, and other dark changes loomed on the horizon. It had started with memory loss. He thought this regrettable but not wholly unexpected in a man of his age. The memory of the sinking and what followed did not fade, but many other things did. He noticed his balance deteriorated, but Peter was one of nature’s stoics, and rarely complained. The changes were slow, months drifting into years, until one day the lights flashed more intensely before his eyes. The migraine would not leave. It was fierce, unending, and he fell. He had struck his head on the unyielding pavement, and there was blood on his clothes. He woke, slowly and confused, as he was lifted onto a trolley in a brightly lit hospital room. Peter heard loudspeaker announcements, children crying, and drunk voices swearing. A nurse crossed his vision and explained. He had had a seizure. Did he have any history of seizures? Was he on medication for them? He wasn’t. Since he had struck his head, a harassed doctor explained that a CT scan of his head would be necessary, “just to be sure you’re OK…” Peter asked when that would be.

           “When CT calls for you, not sure when; they’re a bit pushed at the moment…” Peter lay in the cubicle, curtains open, and he could see the nightly tragedy and comedy of Emergency unfolding. Screaming, crying, a drunk voice insisting he could leave, staggering past the cubicle. Someone vomiting. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when an orderly unplugged his bed from the wall, and called for the nurse. She would escort him to scan. They went through deserted corridors and into Radiology. The radiographer indicated the humming scanner. His name was already on the digital display. She indicated a headrest as he lay on the table. He laid back. His head fitted snugly. The radiographer went to the control room, and the table slid into the machine. The scan was rapid. In the control room, images appeared on the monitor. On the image of the brain, there was an irregular gray area. The radiographer looked again. Peter was taken back to Emergency, and he waited, drowsy and sick. The cacophony outside continued.

The young doctor returned, and explained, with medical euphemisms, that there was “something on the scan. We’ve asked neurosurgical to have a look at you.”  So began Peter’s odyssey to this hospice room. That night, he had been admitted to the neurosurgical ward. It had been a clamor of ringing bells, flickering lights, and disturbed fellow patients. Morning came, and with it a ward round. The neurosurgical consultant was smartly suited, surrounded by junior doctors dressed casually. The days of white coats in hospitals had long passed. The consultant left Peter to be seen last. The junior doctors and students went about their day-to-day work, and the consultant and registrar pulled the curtains around Peter’s bed. There was still dried blood on Peter’s face. He explained that there had been an area on the scan that looked very like a tumor. Based on the consultant’s experience–“and pending the formal report from our colleagues in Radiology–it is almost certainly a glioblastoma, and the appearance and location are very suggestive of a–glioblastoma multiforme.”  It was explained to him that the prognosis was very poor, though further scanning and biopsy would confirm the likely diagnosis. The consultant and registrar were very sorry. They left the ward and went into an empty lift. The registrar turned to the consultant. “It’s definitely a GBM.”  The consultant looked straight ahead “We’ll wait on the MRI. We will keep him comfortable. You know what we called glioblastoma multiforme when I was training?” The registrar shook his head. “The Terminator.”

Glioblastoma multiforme is extremely aggressive. It carries a very poor prognosis. There followed days of investigations, of waiting for results, and surgery to enable a biopsy to be taken. Peter had commenced medication to control seizures. There had been talk of therapeutic levels and symptom control, and–another bleak phrase–‘keeping comfortable.’  The headaches were always there, varying in intensity but never leaving. In moments of clarity, he knew they had begun so many years ago. He saw the nameless creature pointing at him and the flash of pain. The face, and the memory of it, did not leave. He could see it now, as the neurosurgical consultant came into his room. He had been moved into a single room. Those who know hospitals and their ways know that this is rarely a good sign. So it proved. The consultant and registrar came in and closed the door quietly. They spoke of areas of eloquent brain, of tumor growth, and the inadvisability of surgery. He mentioned astrocytes, star like brain cells that assisted–if that was the right word–the inexorable growth of the tumor. Peter heard that surgery was not an option. It was highly unlikely to be helpful and would, in all likelihood, make the symptoms worse. Peter sensed his life crashing down around him, and thought of the stars on the night the Antaura was sunk. So bright they were. So bright. The consultant was speaking again.

 “...So, our best option is to refer you to our colleagues in palliative care. They are experts in controlling symptoms, and they will keep you as comfortable as possible… but it is inevitable that these symptoms will progress. In my opinion, you should make the most of what time remains. Is there anything you would like to ask?”

          There wasn’t. The hospice had a bed available the following week, and Peter left the bustle of the ward. There was a short ambulance journey. He saw snowflakes swirling, framed by the window, and felt faintly nauseated by the jolting of the vehicle. He was helped from the ambulance, a cold wind whipping at his hospital dressing gown. A friendly nurse led him to his room. The reception desk had a sign reading ‘Season’s Greetings.’  Christmas carols played in the background. The nurse helped him to his room. They went past donated artwork on the walls. Wildlife and local scenes. Peter murmured his thanks, though words were harder to form now. He laid down, and again the images returned. Christmas was drawing nearer, and the days passed. They passed in a growing haze. The tumor was growing, and when his headaches were at least subdued, he slept. Days drifted into nights, and always the sinking returned. Something other had brought him to land. He remembered the words and the name of the figure. It had said “there may come a darkness…”  It echoed in his tormented head. The creature that had pointed at him, knowing and infinitely vindictive, was here at the edge of memory.

          Peter was drowsy now, barely able to walk with assistance. He lay in his room. When someone is close to death, an enduring belief is held by some that their relatives, their friends, and even beloved pets–all of whom have preceded them in death–congregate to assist their transition to whatever lies beyond their mortality. This belief is especially prominent in some older nurses. However unwell the patient is, they speak, they even converse with figures unseen and often seem to reach toward those that they once loved and, given the imminence of death, with whom they will soon be reunited. The assumption is one of benevolence prevailing, of peace prevailing over suffering. It is a well-intentioned assumption. It is also mistaken. The door of Peter’s room was open, the curtains pulled around his bed. He was dreaming, if dreaming is the right word, of a night at sea long ago. The door clicked gently shut. The rooms were lit by a faint red glow at night. Peter heard the crashing of waves, the screams and he could smell acrid smoke and salt water. He raised his head and stared at the end of the bed. As his tumor had advanced, Peter’s speech had been affected and was slurred and indistinct. He recognized the figure. He saw the fangs, the skin rippling and glinting. Water dripped from it. Peter reached for the bell that would call for help, but it had slipped beyond his reach. He heard a voice, a voice that seemed calm and tinged with a bleak certainty. The voice continued. It was the tolling of a rusted bell. Peter raised his thin arms, but not in welcome. He lifted his head. He could still see the quote from C.S. Lewis, framed on the wall and reflecting the dim light.

          “There are far, far better things ahead of us than any that have gone before.” The voice, like none he had ever heard, a message from somewhere beyond distance.

“We have met before. I inflicted pain–you will remember that pain–and that pain has continued. It has stayed with you like an old and valued companion, has it not? You will soon join your friends in the place prepared, a place where time has no meaning. What you fondly imagine is death is very close to you, but a part of you–some call it soul–will endure. You escaped it when another intervened…”

          Peter tried to speak. The words would not form. The figure continued.

“I hold sway beneath the waves, and I showed your enemy the path. I can cause pain in the heads of mortal men–but you know this, I think…”

 

          The laughter was cold and hollow. The creature raised an arm. For the second time in his life, Peter was beyond fear. Words came at last, between rasping breaths…“who…” There was an answer, though no sound broke the stillness of the room.

          “The Greek ancients changed my name. We have endured for time beyond measure. They thought themselves significant when they called me Aura–Bride of–the Wind–but you will be familiar with my given name soon, more familiar than you would like…”

            Peter could no longer speak. His breathing was labored. The lights flashed brightly for the last time before his eyes. He slipped into his final unconsciousness. The outline of the figure shimmered. In death, hearing is said to be the final sense that departs. As hearing and life faded, Peter heard the final words, tinged with mockery and tainted with malice.

         “My name is Antaura.”

Paul Radcliffe is an Emergency RN. In the past, he worked in an area where children were sometimes afflicted with sickness of Gothic proportions. Some are ghosts now. As a child he visited an aunt in a haunted farmhouse. This explains a lot. Paul has worked in a variety of noisy places unlikely to be on anyone’s list of holiday destinations. He is also a highly suggestible subject for any cat requiring feeding and practicing hypnosis.

Henry Stanton's fiction, poetry and paintings appear in 2River, The A3 Review, Avatar, The Baltimore City Paper, The Baltimore Sun Magazine, High Shelf Press, Kestrel, North of Oxford, Outlaw Poetry, PCC Inscape, Pindeldyboz, Rusty Truck, Salt & Syntax, SmokeLong Quarterly, The William and Mary Review, Word Riot, The Write Launch, and Yellow Mama, among other publications. 

His poetry was selected for the A3 Review Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Eyewear 9th Fortnight Prize for Poetry.  His fiction received an Honorable Mention acceptance for the Salt & Syntax Fiction Contest and was selected as a finalist for the Pen 2 Paper Annual Writing Contest.

A selection of Henry Stanton's paintings are currently on show at Atwater's Catonsville and can be viewed at the following website www.brightportfal.com.  A selection of Henry Stanton’s published fiction and poetry can be located for reading in the library at www.brightportfal.com.

Henry Stanton is the Founding & Managing Editor of The Raw Art Reviewwww.therawartreview.com.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2023