Sloping roofs. (and other ways to deal with the rain)

and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to,


– William Shakespeare, Hamlet


I couldn’t sleep.

Of course I couldn’t. I had a whole universe to worry about.

And I kept thinking about the pain, and the sound, and the violet.

On top of that, it was raining.

I decided to leave Isobel in bed and go and talk with Newton. I headed slowly downstairs, with my hands over my ears, trying to cancel out the sound of falling cloud water drumming against the windows. To my disappointment Newton was sleeping soundly in his basket.

On my return upstairs I noticed something else. The air was cooler than it should have been, and the coolness was coming from above rather than below. This went against the order of things. I thought of his bruised eye, and I thought further back.

I headed up towards the attic and noticed that everything there was exactly as it should be. The computer, the Dark Matter posters, the random array of socks – everything, that was, except Gulliver himself.

A piece of paper floated towards me, carried on the breeze from the open window. On it were two words.

I’m sorry.

I looked at the window. Outside was the night and the shivering stars of this most alien, yet most familiar galaxy.

Somewhere beyond this sky was home. I realised I could now get back there if I wanted. I could just finish my task and be back in my painless world. The window sloped in line with the roof, which like so many roofs here was designed to usher away the rain. It was easy enough for me to climb out of but for Gulliver it must have been quite an exertion.

The difficult thing for me was the rain itself.

It was relentless.

Skin-soaking.

I saw him sitting on the edge, next to the gutter rail, with his knees pulled into his chest. He looked cold and bedraggled. And seeing him there I saw him not as a special entity, an exotic collection of protons, electrons and neutrons, but as a – using the human term – as a person. And I felt, I don’t know, connected with him. Not in the quantum sense in which everything was connected to everything else, and in which every atom spoke to and negotiated with every other atom. No. This was on another level. A level far, far harder to understand.

Can I end his life?

I started walking towards him. Not easy, given the human feet and 45-degree angle and the wet slate – sleek quartz and muscovite – on which I was relying.

When I was getting close he turned around and saw me.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked. He was frightened. That was the main thing I noticed.

‘I was about to ask you the same thing.’

‘Dad, just go away.’

What he was saying made sense. I mean, I could have just left him there. I could have escaped the rain, the terrible sensation of that falling water on my thin non-vascular skin, and gone inside. It was then I had to face why I was really out there.

‘No,’ I said, to my own confusion. ‘I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to go away.’

I slipped a little. A tile came unstuck, slid, fell and smashed to the ground. The smash woke Newton, who started barking.

Gulliver’s eyes widened, then his head jerked away. His whole body seemed full of nervous intention.

‘Don’t do it,’ I said.

He let go of something. It landed in the gutter. The small plastic cylinder that had contained the twenty-eight diazepam tablets. Now empty.

I stepped closer. I had read enough human literature to realise that suicide was a real option, here, on Earth. Yet again I wondered why this should have bothered me.

I was becoming mad.

Losing my rationality.

If Gulliver wanted to kill himself then, logically, that solved a major problem. And I should just stand back and let it happen.

‘Gulliver, listen to me. Don’t jump. Trust me, you’re nowhere near high enough to guarantee that you’ll kill yourself.’ This was true, but as far as I could calculate there was still a very good chance of him falling and dying on impact. In which instance, there would be nothing I could do to help him. Injuries could always be healed. Death meant death. A zero squared was still a zero.

‘I remember swimming with you,’ he said, ‘when I was eight. When we were in France. Can you remember, that night you taught me how to play dominoes?’

He looked back at me, wanting to see a recognition I couldn’t give him. It was hard to see his bruised eye in this light; there was so much darkness across his face he might as well have been all bruise.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Of course I remember that.’

‘Liar! You don’t remember.’

‘Listen, Gulliver, let’s go inside. Let’s talk about this indoors. If you still want to kill yourself I’ll take you to a higher building.’

Gulliver didn’t seem to be listening, as I kept stepping on the slippery slate towards him.

‘That’s the last good memory I have,’ he said. It sounded sincere.

‘Come on, that can’t be true.’

‘Do you have any idea what it’s like? To be your son?’

‘No. I don’t.’

He pointed to his eye. ‘This. This is what it’s like.’

‘Gulliver, I’m sorry.’

‘Do you know what it’s like to feel stupid all the time?’

‘You’re not stupid.’ I was still standing. The human way would have been to shuffle down on my backside, but that would have taken too much time. So I kept taking tentative steps on the slate, leaning back just enough, in continuous negotiation with gravity.

‘I’m stupid. I’m nothing.’

‘No, Gulliver, you’re not. You’re something. You’re—’

He wasn’t listening.

The diazepam was taking hold of him.

‘How many tablets did you take?’ I asked. ‘All of them?’

I was nearly at him, my hand was almost within grasping distance of his shoulder as his eyes closed and he disappeared into sleep, or prayer.

Another tile came loose. I slipped on to my side, losing my footing on the rain-greased tiles until I was left hanging on to the gutter rail. I could have easily climbed back up. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that Gulliver was now tilting forward.

‘Gulliver, wait! Wake up! Wake up, Gulliver!’

The tilt gained momentum.

‘No!’

He fell, and I fell with him. First internally, a kind of emotional falling, a silent howl into an abyss, and then physically. I sped through the air with a dreadful velocity.

I broke my legs.

So that was my intention. Let the legs take the pain, and not the head, because I would need my head. But the pain was immense. For a moment I worried they wouldn’t reheal. It was only the sight of Gulliver lying totally unconscious on the ground a few metres away that gave me focus. Blood leaked from his ear. To heal him I knew I would first of all need to heal myself. And it happened. Simply wishing was enough, if you wished hard enough, with the right kind of intelligence.

That said, cell regeneration and bone reconstruction still took a lot of energy, especially as I was losing a lot of blood and had multiple fractures. But the pain diminished as a strange, intense fatigue took over me and gravity tried to grip me to the ground. My head hurt, but not as a result of the fall; from the exertion involved in my physical restoration.

I stood up dizzily. I managed to move towards where Gulliver lay, the horizontal ground now sloping more than the roof.

‘Gulliver. Come on. Can you hear me? Gulliver?’

I could have called for help, I knew that. But help meant an ambulance and a hospital. Help meant humans grasping around in the dark of their own medical ignorance. Help meant delay and a death I was meant to approve of, but couldn’t.

‘Gulliver?’

There was no pulse. He was dead. I must have been seconds too late. I could already detect the first tiny descent in his body temperature.

Rationally, I should have resigned myself to this fact.

And yet.

I had read a lot of Isobel’s work and so I knew that the whole of human history was full of people who tried against the odds. Some succeeded, most failed, but that hadn’t stopped them. Whatever else you could say about these particular primates, they could be determined. And they could hope. Oh yes, they could hope.

And hope was often irrational. It made no sense. If it had made sense it would have been called, well, sense. The other thing about hope was that it took effort, and I had never been used to effort. At home, nothing had been an effort. That was the whole point of home, the comfort of a perfectly effortless existence. Yet there I was. Hoping. Not that I was standing there, passively, just wishing him better from a distance. Of course not. I placed my left hand – my gift hand – to his heart, and I began to work.

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