Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Relative

Personal 19 min read

Back again, are you? Well, it’s good to see you.

Don’t worry; I know who you are. I never forget a face. We took a trip together, didn’t we? Sure we did. Maybe even more than one. It’s all coming back to me.

It’s funny you should happen along right now. I was just thinking about something. I’d love to tell you about it, if you have the time.

That was a little in-joke, there, between us. If you have the time. You got it; I could tell. Because we know a secret thing, you and I. It’s not secret in the sense that no-one else knows, but it’s secret because nobody talks about it. The secret thing you and I made good use of on our last trip.

In fact, you know what? Let’s just go again. It’ll even help me explain what I’ve been thinking about. Ready? We’re going the usual way. You don’t need to bring anything special. I’ll have you back here before you know it.

We’re all set. Just take my hand, and keep a tight grip. We’ll go on the count of three. Easy as pie.

One.

Two.

Three.


We’re standing in bright midday sunlight; it’s a gorgeous day. We’re on a residential street somewhere in Scotland, and there are kids playing just a few doors down from us. They can’t see or hear us, of course - as usual, we’re just here to watch.

Take a look at those cars parked all the way up and down the street, which is on a hill. They’re beautiful. Primary colours are popular: blues and reds. They’re all kinds of models, but you know how I like the Fords. There’s a Granada, and there’s even a silver Capri farther down, with its window open. The driver is smoking, and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel to the music on the radio.

It’s the year 1983, yet we’re actually standing here. Our mundane but delicious secret brought us back, and of course that is the secret. We can go back whenever we want. We can’t change a damned thing, but we can look and listen and smell and taste it anytime. All it takes are a few words, and maybe a count of three.

Have a good sniff of the air: that’s tarmac heated by the sun. They laid it here not too long ago. And if you listen, you can hear what the radio in the Capri is playing. You recognise this one, don’t you? It’s Baby Jane, by Rod Stewart. An oldie. But here, where we are now, it was only released last month.

Let’s take a stroll, just a little way down the hill. The kids are getting louder as we approach, playing without a care in the world. You can see how they have treats, too - that’s because the ice cream van just left a few minutes ago (you and I actually popped into the very space it had recently occupied).

Take a look at the boy there - not that one; I mean the red-haired little kid. He’s holding some pink candy floss, which the ice cream van sells on hot days like this. Looks like he’s enjoying it too. I can tell you a lot about that kid. I can tell you that he turned four years old less than a week ago. I can tell you that he lives in the big black-and-white house that’s about five doors behind us back up the hill. I can tell you his name and everything.

Because he’s me. Don’t look so surprised; you know how this magic works. We’re walking the paths of my past, after all. Or maybe it was just the hair colour that got you? I turned brown not long after this, but I did spend the first few years of my life with red hair. It still comes through in my beard a little, on hot Summer days just like this one.

Keep watching, because little Matthew there is about to make a profound discovery. You can see it coming, just above the neighbouring hedge. You can hear the buzz, and see the flutter of yellow and black. Just a few more seconds.

Bam. He discovered pain. Not the everyday kind where you fall and scrape your knees, but the sudden, shocking, unprovoked sort: the surprising pain. The pain you didn’t deserve.

Look at him cry. I’m still a little afraid of bees and wasps, even today. I can manage to shoo them out of a window (I’m thirty-five back in our actual time), but I still instinctively cringe when I hear that buzzing sound. That’s a textbook conditioned aversion response. It helps keep us alive.

Direct your attention even farther down the hill - you might have to shield your eyes against the sunlight. There are two old ladies coming up towards us, one of them pulling the kind of shopping trolley that only old ladies seem to have. Tartan sides, two wheels, and a big handle. I’ve never seen them for sale anywhere. Maybe the government issues them at retirement, and they’re delivered directly.

Where have those old ladies been today, do you think? Maybe the Post Office, collecting their pensions. Or the supermarket, given the trolley. I suppose they might even have been at the newsagent, picking up their weekly magazines. We could ask - because we are actually here - but they wouldn’t be able to hear us.

They’re drawing level with Matthew now, and they’ve stopped. Old ladies tend to enquire as to why children are crying. In a moment, Matthew will gather enough composure to explain he’s been stung by a wasp (though he will call it a bee; he doesn’t yet know about wasps). The ladies will escort him back to his own house, and see him safely inside, before continuing on their way. His mother will correctly surmise that the insect was a wasp rather than a bee, and use vinegar to soothe the wound.

We could wait, and watch those events unfold. I’ve seen them before, but you’re welcome to see for yourself. No? Then let’s move on.

We’re not going too far this time. I hope you dressed warmly - not that the weather of the past can actually touch you, of course. Grab my hand. On three.

Three!


We’re… still here. Look around and you’ll see: the same street. But it’s clearly night, and far colder. A dusting of snow lies on everything. The street is silent. Believe it or not, it’s only five or six hours later in the day, but it’s also a different day. This is Winter, and more than two years have passed.

We’re in front of Matthew’s house - my house. Past the black ironwork of the gate, we can see that the large storm doors at the top of the stairs are closed. The driveway gates, also of black wrought iron, are closed and latched. Curtains are drawn, though we can see light inside the main level of the house. The upper levels are in darkness, brooding under a pearlescent sky. The entire scene is lit by the colour-muddling, sickly Hallowe’en glow of streetlights.

You could walk up those main stairs, and reach for the handle of the brass knocker on the rightmost storm door, but your hand would pass right through. Those doors exist here in 1985, while the substance of your hand is still waiting for you back in 2014. It can wait there for a while longer.

Let’s instead walk up the driveway, around to the back of the house. The gates won’t be an obstacle: we’ll pass right through, just like the wind. Don’t be startled if the dog is out, but be aware that he will see us. Animals can see things humans can’t, including travellers like us.

There he is, just as I expected - see the eyes in the darkness near the garage? A big Alsatian mix, quiet and civilised. His name is Bruce.

It’s good to see you again, boy. You look strong. You don’t have so many years left in this world, but you’ll always be alive here, on this night. I can find you here forever.

See the swish of his tail? He knows exactly who I am. And we say that we’re the superior species.

Here’s the back door now, up a flight of grey stone steps. It’s solid-cored and painted black as pitch. Out here tonight, you could walk right into it - so let’s do just that.

Much better. It’s light and warm here in the back lobby leading to the kitchen. There’s Bruce’s dish and water bowl in the corner. Let me lead you through the house; there’s something to see here too.

We pass through the kitchen (the woman sitting there, finishing up some entries in an attendance book for her dancing school, is my mother), then the back hall, up a few stairs to the front hall (the storm doors are at the far end, behind an inner glass door), then along the passage to the living room. Light and noise spill out, and in we go.

There he is again! Matthew, this time taller and with brown hair, but unmistakably the same boy. The man kneeling on the ground, leaning forward with his elbows just past his knees, is my father; another in a line of men called Matthew Gemmell. I know what you’re going to ask, but all will become clear in a moment.

The boy runs towards the kneeling man, who is facing away from him. At the last moment, Matthew jumps, puts his palms flat on the middle of his father’s back, and leapfrogs right over him - hah!

Such energy that children have. He’s been doing that for five minutes now, each time landing perfectly. And each time, he calls for his mother to come and watch. She calls through “I’ll be there in a minute!”, and at last we hear footsteps from the main hall.

This is the part to pay attention to. You’ll notice there’s no wasp hovering nearby, for this is Winter, and wasps can’t survive here at this time of year.

Mother has arrived, and Matthew exhorts her to watch this!

He takes his position, then runs full tilt towards his father.

He jumps a little higher than before, places his hands, and leapfrogs with all the energy that an adoring audience brings. He flies farther than ever.

His feet land, but well ahead of his body. He skids, falling backwards to the floor.

His hands go out behind him to cushion his fall.

His splayed hands, with arms locked straight, contact the carpet. He is leaning slightly to the right, off-balance.

And there’s a sound. Pay attention to it, because there will be a pocket of utter silence afterwards. It’s like a twig snapping.

There’s silence now, because everyone has heard the sound. See how the pink flush of excitement has vanished from Matthew’s cheeks, to be replaced by a sudden pallor. See how wide his pupils are. Something is wrong.

Take a look at my right hand now; I mean the right hand of me, the person who’s travelling with you - not the boy. Normal, yes? But let me make a fist. Notice the fourth finger there. The top joint (just beneath the nail) doesn’t work. It doesn’t bend, not even if you try to do it manually with the other hand. It hasn’t worked since this night.

His wrist is broken, and again he’s learned a lesson about sudden, shocking, perspective-altering pain. You’d expect him to be wailing now, but his grey-faced silence is even more frightening.

This is worse than the bee-wasp (he hasn’t had candy floss in two years, and it will be many more years until he does). This puts a harsh spotlight on a sting, showing how insignificant it really is. This pain is large, in a way that nothing else has been. Matthew doesn’t yet know words like pervasive, or profound, but if he did, he might find that they had use here tonight.

Again, we could stay. We could watch the pots of cold and warm water being brought, and the wrist being submerged alternately in each, until feeling has deadened. We could watch shock setting in. It’s unpleasant, so I daresay we won’t.

We could skip forward a little, to see how he’s still here later on, put to bed with the arm over a pillow, keeping quiet so as not to wake his infant brother. It’s late, and it would be a hassle to go to the hospital (a mile away; its emergency department open every minute of the year), after all. Both cars are already in the driveway. It’s been a long day. Tomorrow will do just as well.

Let’s move on. Take my hand - yes, I can grip just fine, thanks very much. We adapt.

We’re going further this time. Further in time, but still not back to our beloved 21st Century. We have a couple of stops to make first, just like Father Christmas. Or perhaps the Ghost of Christmas Past is more apt, because that’s what you and I are tonight, isn’t it? We’re ghosts, but alive. Here to see and hear, but only able to touch and feel elsewhere. Perhaps that’s all that ghosts are: silent travellers, learning every possible lesson, and forever unable to put them to use.

That’s a debate we won’t settle tonight, though - and indeed we’re not going to stay here in this night any longer. Don’t squeeze my hand too tightly.

Welcome aboard; our next stop is the scenic year of 1993. Make sure you have all your belongings, and stand clear of the doors.

Here…

we…

go.


You were perhaps expecting a certain familiar street? Not this time.

We’re hundreds of miles away, to the North in fact. It’s Summer again, though cloudy and blustery. Take a look at those pine trees, as far as you can see. There are corn fields over there too. But let’s turn around.

This is what you’d probably call a camp site and trailer park, but I call it a caravan park. It’s about two in the afternoon in this particular oubliette of the past. You can hear distant seagulls, and the wind sighing in the trees. We’re standing on grass, made crunchy with a blanket of fine pine needles. The sea is close by, and the combined smell is fresher than anything you’ve ever encountered.

Come with me down this wide gravel path between expanses of grass. These brightly-coloured boxes you see are residential caravans (you might call them trailers), and you can also see some mobile tourer vans along the far tree-line there. Back down the path behind us, we’d eventually come to a small play park, and rows of tents. But we’ll press on for now.

That’s where we’re headed: the mint green caravan. I’ve told you about this place before, haven’t I? Of course I have. I don’t like to think about that night very much, but it did happen.

Let’s go up the three big, stone steps and pass through the door - either one will do. There we go.

You can see what we’re here for. There’s Matthew again, if you can believe it. He’s fifteen. A little soft around the middle, now, but not too much. Sullen. His eyes are darker than you probably remember. His surname is no longer Gemmell, either - he and his brother now have his mother’s maiden name; a retaliatory gesture on her part towards her ex-husband.

And of course, you also recognise his mother herself.

What you have to understand about this particular scene is that his father is long gone - I showed you a bit about that on our last trip. Not ‘gone’ as in out of contact, but no longer part of this family unit. His brother is here, somewhere - elsewhere in the caravan park, with his own BMX. Maybe even in the play park.

Matthew and his mother have been arguing, as you can easily tell from the tense body language here. The topic isn’t important, and in fact was trivial, but what is important is that he has just made a mistake. It was a moment before we walked in. A quirk of tone, of expression, and perhaps of body language; the boy showing a shadow of the man he might possibly become.

She storms past us now, into one of the three bedrooms of this caravan, and returns a moment later. She’s holding an empty suitcase (his), and she throws it.

It strikes him uselessly on the thighs, and falls to the floor. It’s a canvas-sided suitcase, as you can see: navy blue, with zippers. There’s almost no weight in it at all.

Let me pause time now; there. Were you aware that we can do that, too? It only takes a thought. Now we can talk, and explore the scene, at our leisure.

If we restore the normal flow of time, events will play out just like this.

Just like your father, she will spit. Get out.

He will do so, leaving the suitcase behind, of course - he’s only fifteen. His only available personal transportation is a racer bicycle, which won’t take him the couple of hundred miles south and home (not that he has a key to that looming house on the street anyway).

He’ll start on his way regardless, and will be collected by car shortly later, returning here to this caravan. There will be an awkwardly silent dinner. The argument won’t be resumed, and the anger will dissipate slowly, over the course of days. The holiday will eventually come to an end, and time will hurtle onward as usual.

I still think about this. It was made very clear that any similarity to my father was a source of shame. A tough lesson for an inevitably similar firstborn son, and his namesake. You can imagine the various strains and damages; the doubts and self-image issues. You can perhaps glimpse just the leading edge of a years-long process of rationalisation and rediscovery, to put these years in their proper context, and depersonalise those experiences.

Or perhaps you can’t. No matter.

The suitcase was a discovery too, in the same category: vistas of pain. There was no physical component to it, this time: no sharp sting and red welt, and no glassy and appalling snap below the skin, roaring up through bones like darts of ice. This time, it was more existential. The flimsy case had a figurative weight, and bruised only internally. It wasn’t an injury; it was a judgement.

Let’s move on. I find it unsettling to hold time perfectly still like this; frozen, as if it’s not really alive at all. It will resume on its own once we leave, which is good enough for me.

We have one more stop to make, and it’s just another short hop down the chronological highway. No need to shield your eyes; it will be dark again in this next place.

Hand secure? Good. Let’s hurry. One, and two,

and three.


I’ll forgive your lack of surprise. Yes, it’s the same street we’ve visited twice now, and we’re in front of the same house. There’s no snow this time, because it’s once again Summer. The sky is clear and dark, and you can see the stars faintly against the omnipresent orange sodium-lamp glow of civilisation. The moon is large and full. It’s the year 1997.

You know the way well enough by now - we’re going through the driveway gates again. Can you hear that soft sound up ahead, lost in the darkness of the back garden? There’s a large, square patch of lawn there. And no, it’s not the dog. Keep walking.

You can’t possibly recognise him from this position, but that’s me again. Yes, really. Not much taller than last time, but his hair is much longer; almost halfway down his back. He’s lost a bit of weight, too, though you wouldn’t know it from the baggy clothes.

Look how he’s shuffling slowly around the perimeter of the lawn, holding his entire body rigid. It’s about 3 AM right now, hence the unnatural silence. No-one else is here - the house is empty. He’s house-sitting, in fact, while the rest of the family are away on holiday (including the dog; a boxer now - Bruce the Alsatian exists only in the bright places of the past).

You could readily conclude that his behaviour is due to some mental illness, but there’s a far more prosaic explanation: he’s in agony.

He woke up about an hour ago, with a gnawing, stabbing pain inside his right ear, which quickly grew to fill the entire right side of his head. No position brought any relief. You can hear his breath hissing between his teeth, if you listen carefully. He’s shuffling (ever so slowly and carefully) around the back garden, again and again in the dead of night, because there’s nothing else to do.

About ten minutes from now, the pain will finally break him, and he will go inside. He will gather up such money as can be found, and he’ll call a taxi to the hospital. The receiving nurses will give him pain relief even before the doctor has seen him, and twenty minutes later one of them will puncture an ampoule of morphine and instruct him to drink it. It will be bitter, but it will take the barest edge from the pain, and he will be grateful.

Sunrise will find him sitting in a deserted hospital corridor, drinking vending-machine coffee and waiting for the Ear, Nose and Throat consultant to arrive for work. He will be nibbling half-heartedly on a biscuit brought from the nurses’ break room by a kind young woman.

The specialist will eventually arrive, and will use a machine the size of a jackhammer to look into his ear. It will be painful beyond all reason, but he will endure it, with sweat dripping from his forehead and catching in his eyebrows, because it will hopefully be a pathway to relief. Afterwards, his ear will be packed with tar to kill bacteria, and for a while, everywhere will smell just like that hot street where he learned to fear buzzing insects of yellow and black.

Poor boy. Matt (for that’s his name now; never again Matthew, but not yet Gemmell) will have three appointments at this hospital today, going home after each. He will have at least two appointments per day for the next couple of weeks, and several afterwards.

He has a simultaneous inner and outer ear infection around the eardrum of his right ear, and the resulting pressure is producing truly terrific levels of pain (apparently right up there with renal colic and childbirth).

He’ll be asked if there’s anyone to call, or to collect him. He will say no, and be glad of it.

The next few weeks will blur into a mist of medication and the drumbeat of pain. One day, about three weeks from now, he’ll finally be well enough to have a bath, and will submerge his entire head gratefully. He’ll then sit up, and reflexively swallow, and there will be a sound like a gunshot. The lingering pain will disappear instantly, and will never return: his eardrum has ruptured.

You and I have only met on these quiet paths through the past, of course. We’ve never chatted in the pub, or out on the street in our own time. If we did, and you spoke quietly, or if it was particularly noisy, you might notice I’ll strain to hear you - that’s a parting gift from this final experience. You never do quite regain all the hearing. It was a small price to pay in exchange for blessed relief.

But none of that has happened yet. We’re still here, standing in the dark, watching him shuffle slowly around the square of grass, which is green and healthy but looks frozen and dead under the moon. He’s learning another lesson, foot by foot and yard by yard.

If I had to choose just one of those experiences to never repeat, it would be this one. The depth and consciousness-filling nature of the pain was unbearable, and it was constant. There wasn’t a moment of respite after it started. I had to concentrate on just breathing. It makes me shudder even now. Standing here in the garden and watching him - or rather, me - I can almost remember how it felt, and I become queasy at the thought.

I think you’ve seen enough to understand, anyway. Take my hand one last time. We don’t need to go back out to the street; we can travel from right here, or there, or anywhere. It’s a little piece of melancholy magic that everyone can do.

The tour has ended, and we’re circling back to the station. It’ll take just the barest moment, and even better: only a few minutes will have passed since we left. That’s the part I like the most.

How do you choose the destination, you ask? It’s the easiest thing in the world: you just concentrate, and let yourself go there. One word ought to do it.

Home.


And here we are. Now, take a minute to reacclimatise yourself. Remember that this is the present, now. People can see and hear you. You can touch things, and pick them up. You can’t see what’s ahead. This is live, and once you do anything, it’s locked in. The usual way that things work; you know as well as I do. Just take a minute to settle back in.

What was I saying a few moments ago, in 1997? Yes, it was about which type of pain was the worst, and how they all fade. That was a half truth, really.

I can’t even find the bee sting. It healed up so long ago, and I haven’t been stung since. My wrist still aches on very cold days, but the whole mechanism works very well - except that top joint of the fourth finger. I consider myself lucky.

I haven’t had an ear infection since the year we just left, and I sincerely hope to maintain that record for a very long time. Sometimes it seems like just a bad dream.

Then there’s the suitcase. It’s still in that house, in the back of a cupboard, I think. Sitting empty, just as it was. It didn’t leave a mark when it bounced off my thighs that day and slid to the thin linoleum floor.

The suitcase still hurts, though.

It wasn’t a sharp revelation that the world has barbs. It wasn’t a shocking injustice that abruptly revealed the horror of human frailty. And it was not a coffin of inescapable, gnawing agony that dulled thoughts and reduced the universe to a pinpoint. It was none of those things.

I’m back to Gemmell now, as you know. I could show you when I took the name back (it was in the most futuristic year of this century, 2001, and it was Summer again).

Thousands of days and nights have passed since then, but still: the suitcase. This same face that I see in the mirror each day, and have - at length - come to terms with. I’d love to make another trip back to 1993, and tell him that this day will indeed come. But he wouldn’t be able to hear me, because when we’re there, we’re just ghosts.

You make adjustments, whether they’re shuffling around the garden, or saying no to candy floss, or even changing how you strike the keys of a piano (or indeed a computer keyboard). You do it automatically, and you have to. They’re all different accommodations, and you have to make them all, based on nothing but random chance and fate.

Have you ever been stung by a wasp? Or broken a bone? Maybe had a really bad ear infection? I hope not.

Have you ever been hit by an empty suitcase?

I can’t recommend it. Doesn’t hurt as such, but then that’s the thing. Pain is relative.

I’ve taken up enough of your time. I really appreciate the company, and please forgive my reminiscences. You know what I’m like.

Come back anytime you want. You can even go yourself, if you’re interested, but it’ll be clearer if I’m there with you. That’s how it works. I’ll wait for you to show up.

Don’t worry about introducing yourself; I’ll know who you are. No question about it.

I never forget a face.


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